I've been to several finish banquets for sled dog races over the past few years. They are always fun, but they aren't always particularly memorable. They tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. There is generally a social hour in which mushers, race officials, vets and volunteers all hob-nob, catching up on all the news that is fit to share. That's generally followed by the rush to the buffet line for a plate of chow that ranges from edible to wow, and then each musher is called on stage in turn to accept his or her prize, tell a story or two, express appreciation for their supports and individual sponsors, and then make way for the next.
Usually by the end of it I'm thinking "that was fun, now let's go out and run some dogs." This year's Yukon Quest finish banquet was similar, it followed the traditional pattern, but at the end I was left with that feeling of "holy smokes." If I had to choose one word to describe the experience, that word would be "emotional."
Hugh Neff and Brent Sass are both deeply affected by the deaths of Geronimo and Taco and both were choking back tears as they spoke of their lost companions. I think Brent went from one emotional extreme to the other when Quest officials announced the establishment of a new special award, the Silver Legacy Award. This new award is a non-annual award, to be given to acknowledge a truly outstanding dog.
It's named after it's first recipient, Sass' brilliant old leader Silver. As you'll recall, Silver was instrumental in leading Hans Gatt's team over American Summit during total whiteout conditions. A short video clip posted on the Quest's YouTube page demonstrates just how nasty it was up there.
This wasn't Silver's first heroic experience. Back in 2006 Silver performed a similar feat, leading Randy Chapel's team over Eagle Summit in similar conditions. The Silver Legacy Award will be given to honor future canines for their incredible deeds and feats of bravery and honor.
The most coveted of the special awards is the Veterinarian's Choice Award, presented to the musher who best demonstrates outstanding dog care while remaining competitive in the race. This year head veterinarian Allan Hallman presented the award to Mike Ellis, and his wife Sue. It was another emotional moment as Mike and Sue accepted the award. Mike drives a team of purebred Siberian Huskies, and considered this the highest award that a team of Siberians can earn in long distance racing.
The Sportsmanship Award is presented to the musher who demonstrates sportsmanship along the trail as selected by their fellow mushers. This year, there was a three-way tie in the musher voting which race officials chose not to break. Instead, they issued the Award to all three mushers: Mike Ellis, Allen Moore and Brent Sass. The three mushers each conveyed the same message – that this year, the award could have gone to each and every musher, because everyone was out there helping each other.
A humbled Kelley Griffin took home the Challenge of the North award that is presented to the musher who most exemplified the Spirit of the Yukon Quest as selected by the race officials.
2011 Champion Dallas Seavey won the Rookie of the Year award, in addition to the big pay-check. The youngest musher to ever win the Yukon Quest, Dallas accepted his accolades with the all of the poise and humbleness one would expect of an older man. This is the first major win of Mr. Seavey's career, but I'm confident it won't be his last.
To top it all off, after the conclusion of the banquet, Hank DeBruin, the last musher remaining on the trail, arrived at the finish line in Fairbanks to collect his Red Lantern award, signaling that all the mushers and their teams are safely off the trail.
The 2011 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race had more twists and turns than the trail over Birch Creek. "For sure" winners were forced to scratch or withdraw, some of the best dog mushers and highly skilled outdoorsmen (and women) were humbled by the ferocity of boreal winter conditions. Truly it was a demonstration of how quickly things can go wrong in the harshest climate in North America. It was also a demonstration of the strength and power of the emotional and spiritual bond of humans and dogs can overcome, persevere and prevail.
The Quest is finished for this year, and now I have my own dogs to run and my own trails to explore. It's a beautiful morning with a temperature at an almost balmy -8 degrees (F). There is just a touch of light showing over the southeastern horizon. It's time for me to feed the tend to the dogs so we can go out and enjoy our own little bit of the trail. Who knows, maybe we'll have some video clips of our own to share later on.