‘I let my performances tell the tale’: A short history of women in the Yukon Quest

Beck, Mahoney, Bandana, Otter, Guppy, Troubador…. I’ve known so many wonderful and amazing dogs,” says Jennine Cathers, who operates Cathers Wilderness Adventures of Lake Labarge, Yukon. In 1989, at only 18 years of age, Cathers became the youngest person ever to complete the Yukon Quest. That she is a woman is only besides the point; women have been competing in the Quest since its inception in 1984.

“I have always thought that I could do anything and that my gender was irrelevant. But as it turns out many, many people do not feel the same about women. Strange, huh?”

The Yukon Quest – considered by some to be the most difficult dog sled race in the world – runs between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks, Alaska. The race begins in Fairbanks on even years and in Whitehorse on odd years. The 1,000-mile race has check points in Braeburn, Pelly Crossing, and Dawson City in Yukon, and Eagle, Central, and Two Rivers in Alaska, and summits four mountains: Eagle Summit, Rosebud Summit, American Summit, and King Solomon’s Dome. The racers must make this long-distance sled race across the back country Yukon and Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter, facing extreme cold, harsh weather, and unpredictable and sometimes dangerous conditions.

“Dog mushing is complex – you have to be well versed in dog care and know how to read dogs and have excellent bush skills, know how to read the weather, and how to predict the trail in order to participate (in the Yukon Quest),” says Fabian Schmitz. Schmitz, originally of Germany but now a resident of Fox Lake, Yukon, is this year’s Yukon Quest Race Marshall and an experienced dog musher himself, as is his wife.

It is because of these extreme conditions and the necessity for competency on the trail that makes the sport so challenging – and, perhaps, contributes to an environment in which men and women compete side by side without gender “really being an issue,” says Cathers.

Women have competed alongside men in every Yukon Quest, with the exception of 2005, which saw lower-than-normal musher turn out overall, according to the statistics posted on the Yukon Quest data banks.

“Out there, mushers respect abilities,” Cathers says, “I always felt like, when you’re on the Quest, they respect competitors who are capable, take of their dogs, and can deal with the weather.”

Cathers – along with many other female mushers – say that being a woman has not impacted her experience as a musher in the slightest.

“I didn’t find any challenges to being a woman…If you knew your stuff everyone gave you the respect of being a competitor,” Cathers says. “When I ran for the first time in 1989 though, many people didn’t think I’d finish but I was determined to finish even if I had to walk… They were putting six to one odds on me that I would scratch in the bars.”

In 2000, American Aily Zirkle of SP Kennels became the only woman ever to win the Yukon Quest. Zirkle says that gender is “totally irrelevant” to her experience. Nonetheless, she says there are some minor differences between men and women.

“As a woman, I certainly believe I am different than a man. When I was younger I might not have agreed with this statement. But, as the years have gone by, I have begun to understand that more often than not the world revolves around hormones, breeding, and relationships. This is logical – I mean look at dogs!” she says. “(The experience of being a woman musher) is a little different for me because I am a very large and strong person, (but)…I am never aggressive, dominant, or forceful. Instead of telling someone that I am better or stronger than them, I just let my performances tell the tale.”

Zirkle says that she has been in the “women can do it” spotlight in Alaska and the mushing world for many years but “didn’t fully embrace this position until recently.”

“I (actually) kind of  rejected it because I thought that it was belittling my racing to say that I am ‘the top placing woman’ or the ‘best woman musher’. There obviously are no gender classes in dog races so it seemed to trivialize my accomplishments as a whole… (but) for some people, it is empowering and actually unbelievable that a woman can compete on the same level as a man in a sport like distance dog mushing and win… I have always thought that I could do anything and that my gender was irrelevant. But as it turns out many, many people do not feel the same about women. Strange, huh?”

For her part, Cathers says what makes a great musher has more to do with one’s ability with dogs than one’s gender or even physical strength.

You have to “listen to dogs, try to communicate,” she says, “and understand where each dog is at… You need to be really in tune with your dogs. And of course, what makes a good dog is a lot of things, but heart and loyalty are the most important.”

Six of the 22 mushers set to run the Yukon Quest this year are women. This year’s pot – the money allotted to the winners – is US$120,000 divided between the top 15 finishers in diminishing percentages, with the first place winner taking the pot at 18.93 per cent, or US$22, 716.

The Yukon Quest began February 4 in Whitehorse. The race can be followed by GPS tracking at◉ 

Photo: Jennine Cathers, with two of her sled dogs. Cathers became the youngest person ever to run in the Yukon Quest when she competed at age 18 in 1989. Courtesy of Jennine Cathers