What makes a musher decide to race 1,000 Miles across Alaska and the Yukon in the middle of the winter? What is it actually like out there? These are all questions we had in mind when we reached out to Nathaniel Hamlyn, a former Musher Representative, to get the inside story on how he first became interested in the Yukon Quest, and what his first Yukon Quest experience was like. Enjoy a peak behind the scenes!
How Did You First Become Interested In the Yukon Quest?
My interest in the Yukon Quest stemmed from the environment I was raised in, in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Anyone who has been to Yellowknife during the winter months can attest to just how short the days are and how numerous there are 40 below days. Living in a place like this I needed to find activities that would get me outside and that could be done even when the days were cold.
There was and is a culture in Yellowknife around sled dogs and this interested me. My first experience with dogs was with the fluffier and hardier Inuit sled dog and later the Siberian Husky. I had no interest in racing at the time and my early teen years were full of days with our two dogs pulling me while chasing my dad on a snow machine. I could not imagine a leader just running without chasing something, let alone lead dogs competing in a 100 mile race, and much less a 1,000 mile adventure. I could never have imagined that a Yukon Quest run was in my cards but at the age of 23 that became a reality.
Marcel Marin of Yellowknife, NT is a 2005 Yukon Quest veteran and a good family friend. I would also say that he is my mentor when it comes to my racing. My Dad lit the spark that grew into a flame that Marcel fanned with his numerous tales of the Quest. I wanted to run this race and take part in the adventure and have tales of my own.
I had a long way to go however from my small dog team that were energetically motivated to chase a snow machine or wildlife but not much else. I started with the help of my dad, Paul Hamlyn, to build my kennel.
I competed in my first race when I was 16, the River Runner 140 as it was called, with a Siberian team. I remember claiming the red lantern and crossing the finish line with 2 dogs in the sled, not injured, just tired and maybe somewhat bored. This was the first river trail we had ever run on and without the constant bouncing and tree avoiding of the NT bush trails they lost interest. I learned a lot in my first season and afterwards I was hooked.
My racing dream was officially realized when Marcel Marin pointed me to a kennel sell out that I could monopolize on. The kennel was owned and operated by Warren Palfrey. I jumped on the opportunity and bought a team of 10 dogs. The knowledge I gained from watching those dogs and the true leaders sticks with me to this day. Two dogs in particular, Hurricane and Cyclone, loved to run and cried every time we stopped with disappointment. This was incredible to see and I began to realize how much sled dogs love to pull. They also loved to hit the trail chasing nothing and running for what it seemed like no purpose. The drive of these dogs gave me hope that one day I may be able to travel for days on end in the Yukon wilderness. Little did I know my dream was soon to become reality.
What Can You Tell Us About Your Rookie Year?
One checkpoint stood between me and my dream, completing the Yukon Quest. The 2018 Yukon Quest held many surprises for me as is the case for everyone’s rookie year I assume. The race began in Fairbanks at a brisk 45 below where the thermometer seemed to stick for the next week, never relenting, frozen in place. I heard that the Quest was a cold unforgiving race, but this was a whole new level.
Now leaving Carmacks I was hearing trail reports of overflow outside of the Braeburn checkpoint. It seemed that the leading teams were able to glide over the frozen creeks not one but two times before setting off to Whitehorse. The end of the pack however would not be so lucky. It seems the thermometer finally unfroze, and the temperature now had risen to 0 degrees. Warm enough to melt fragile creeks and open the sky up to a torrent of snow. What a change from the blistering cold a mere week before.
This year the trail had to be diverted off the regular route and was instead put in down Lake Laberge. This meant that for a short distance teams would have to head on pass going into and coming out of Braeburn before heading down Laberge. This also meant that the water crossing would have to be crossed twice.
I left Carmacks and proceeded through “ping pong alley” the notoriously bumpy windy trail on the way to Braeburn. This trail, usually a sled breaking recipe, this day was easier since I had a team of a meager 8 dogs. I had dropped 4 dogs in Mile 101 after coming down Rosebud Summit. I was not prepared for the windswept Summit mixed with the two-foot-high drifts that sent me and my team careening down hills and then almost coming to a direct stop once a drift was hit. What was a disaster back then was helping me now.
I crossed through the windy trails and proceeded down a few lakes on my way to Braeburn. It wasn’t long before I approached the flooded creek as advertised. I couldn’t believe that I was expected to go through this water. A creek backed up and flooded an area about 50 feet long and 15 feet wide and the water was about 2 feet deep, as calculated by my tired sleep deprived brain.
What made it challenging is the fact that under the water the ground was ice and we were traversing down a treed trail. As the dogs hit the water they tried to escape and therefore got tangled around the trees. I made the decision then to get off my sled and pull the leaders through the water. I prayed that my sled would not flip over as that would be a disaster.
I managed to guide my team through the water and out the other side. The water on and in my sled bag froze and added a fair amount of weight to the already heavy sled. I removed the wet booties from the dog’s feet, and we continued on. I then found myself laughing , there was no humor in this situation but I found that you either had to give into nature and be miserable or treat the Yukon and Alaska wilderness like an enemy that you were fighting against.
Winning meant staying warm and continuing on. Failing meant giving into the elements and the ever-present temptation to quit. I was laughing due to the insanity of the situation. My boots were filled with water and my snow pants frozen to almost knee height, but I was moving down the trail and warm! My bunny boots were filled with water and were like an airtight hot tub for my feet!
I traversed the distance to Braeburn feeling quite happy and proud of myself and my team. In the next instant I saw a team approach and recognized the driver as Alex Buetow. We high fived and I felt like I was on the top of the world.
These small unique moments are what makes the Quest so special, I shiver to this day thinking about that moment. The sportsmanship, the shared desire to beat the wilderness connected us in a way that nothing else could. We understood each other and that feeling was incredible.
The same can be said for the connection between my dogs and I, although way stronger. I travelled 900 miles with these dogs to this point and the trust that we crafted was and is unbreakable. Those dogs that were on that team were transformed into magnificent animals that would do anything for me. I felt and feel so honored to follow them along that trail and every trail since.