Yukon Quest – Spirit of the North

Will the incredible bond between humans and dogs be enough to get them through the icy sub-Arctic wilderness to complete the toughest sled-dog race in the world?

Produced by NHNZ

Imagine heading into the unknown icy wilderness of Alaska with just a team of dogs, and facing a gruelling 1,600kms (1,000 miles) of steep summits, frozen rivers and harsh sub-Arctic conditions.

These are the massive obstacles 41 sled-dog teams are presented with as they leave Fairbanks, Alaska and fade into the stark snow-covered landscape in temperatures plunging to minus 40, to attempt the toughest sled-dog race in the world⎯the Yukon Quest.

The Quest is more than a race, it’s a quest to find the ‘spirit of the north’ and can take up to three weeks to complete, with little sleep and rest. This is the ultimate test of skill, determination, loyalty and most of all, the incredible bond between humans and dogs.

Each musher is allowed up to 14 dogs, and although sick or injured ones can be dropped off at several points along the route, each sled must be pulled across the finishing line by a team of at least six dogs.

Yukon QuestSpirit of the North follows three mushers and their dogs. Suzan Amundsen is a veteran with a mix of old, experienced dogs and young inexperienced ones and is hoping just to finish. Bill Steyer is attempting his third Quest, but his real love is travelling with his dogs. Joran Freeman, eager to improve on his fourth placing last year, is very competitive and wants to win.

As the film focuses on the three mushers tackling the harsh weather conditions and bleak wilderness, it also follows the vet team as it examines the dogs from nose to tail at several stages along the route.

The atmosphere at the start-line in Fairbanks Alaska, is tense for the mushers and the air is filled with the barking of restless and eager dogs. The first 50kms (30 miles) offers flat, well marked tracks so the teams can settle into the race before facing their first of four gruelling summits.

There’s a well-earned rest at the first of many checkpoints. It’s crucial to refresh the competitors before they struggle their way to the top of the 3,480ft high, Rosebud Summit.

Having battled their way up the steep hill, they begin the taxing descent. It’s essential to keep the brakes on the sled to prevent it from over-running and crushing the dogs.

They now have more than a 1,200kms (850 miles) left and three more major climbs. The next is Eagle Summit, promising a five-hour slog through a driving blizzard to the 3,600ft peak.

At this point Joran is up with the leaders but is already two dogs down, Suzan is struggling and Bill is one of the few mushers still with all 14 dogs.

The teams must now spend four days making their way along the dangerously isolated trail following the frozen Yukon River that leads them to Canada’s Dawson City⎯the welcoming halfway point.

Dawson City is a mandatory stopover. Here the mushers and dogs can get some well earned rest for 36 hours. After thorough vet checks, Joran continues his race just four hours behind the leader, Bill is six hours behind him but has already dropped five dogs. Suzan, now without most of her young dogs, leaves the checkpoint 30 hours later.

Refreshed and refueled, they make their way up the highest summit on the route, King Solomon’s Dome, which presents a scramble up the snowy track to the 3,800ft peak. At one of the checkpoints, the vets become extremely worried about Joran’s dogs’ blistered paws, but just a few hours behind the leader, he is keen to continue.

Both the mushers and their dogs struggle to keep their spirits high as they reach the final checkpoint before the 175km (100miles) sprint home, and exhaustion is beginning to take its toll.

After a mandatory eight-hour rest, Joran’s dogs’ paws are healing well and the vets agree to allow him to go on. But once loaded up, the only team member with the spirit to continue is Joran. Somewhere along the icy track the dogs ran past their limit, and now refuse to obey their master’s orders. The race is over for a devastated musher.

Bill tackles the final part of the gruelling journey with vigour. Suzan follows more than two days behind but with more determination than ever to complete her fourth quest.

The first team to cross the line in Whitehorse to a hero’s welcome is Hans Gatt, eleven days, four hours and 22 minutes after setting off from Alaska. Elated but exhausted, Bill and his team crosses 17 hours later and wins the highly-respected Vets Choice award for the musher who best combines good racing with good dog care.

The local crowd turns out again in the bitter cold to salute history as the last teams, including Suzan and her crew of experienced old dogs, cross the line more than three days later. The people of the North understand the rugged bond between humans and dogs–the bond that started with their forebears and still drives the racers of the Yukon Quest.

While the winner collects the $30,000 prize, it’s the team in last place that is awarded one of the Quest’s most prestigious awards–the team that most embodies the Spirit of the North.

Yukon QuestSpirit of the North follows the highs, lows, heartache and exhaustion of mushers, dogs, officials and vets, for every mile of snow and ice.

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