Revised - The Yukon Quest awards were handed out Wednesday evening following an abbreviated race.
As has been well-documented in the Star, the 2024 race organizers faced many challenges, including having to change last Saturday’s start time and location due to unseasonably warm weather.
And, of course, the YQ450 became the 300 due to unsafe trail conditions. Fortunately, the awards banquet, held at the Sternwheeler Hotel,
didn’t prove to be one of those challenges.
The evening featured speeches, an excellent buffet and a silent auction, with a healthy dose of humour mixed in.
Quest president Anne Tayler led off the evening with a speech chronicling some of the difficulties encountered before the race.
Those included having to deal with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to allow American mushers to import their dog food into Canada for the race.
Thirty mushers signed up for the race, but only 16 ended up running. Two of them, Cody Strathe and Paige Drobny, had their truck break down on the way from Alaska, forcing them out of the race.
Two of the YQ450 mushers, Carcross’s Connor McMahon and Mayo’s Normand Casavant, had to scratch along the way.
McMahon’s dogs had a tough time on the rough trail and he decided to do the right thing by pulling them from the race at Carmacks.
Casavant’s problems were a little more personal, as he encountered the kind of problem Pepto Bismol was made for. He dropped out at Stepping Stone.
The evening was MC’d by Quest executive director Benjamin Smith, who did a fine job keeping things moving throughout the evening.
The vet team was assembled and the head vet, Dr. Marcus Barth, not surprisingly gave a funny speech, thanking the volunteers and checkpoint managers for their hard work.
Smith commented that assistant head vet Dr. Jaime Martinez had come all the way from Barcelona, Spain to help out on the Quest.
“It shows the worldwide reach of the Quest,” said Smith. “It shows how far this event really stretches, that we can get a vet from Spain.”
“I couldn’t be happier and proud of the team and the work they did,” said Barth.
The YQ100 mushers were honoured first.
“We had a fantastic field of competitors, new mushers, some experienced mushers but overall I think it was a pretty competitive field,” Smith said.
“They did an amazing job of navigating what turned out to be challenging conditions this year.”
Jimmy Lebling, from Two Rivers, Alaska, who finished in last place, wasn’t able to attend the awards.
Whitehorse’s Vico Fauveau, who came in seventh in her first big race, handed out her own “Best Handler” award to Ilana Kingsley,’
The latter selflessly gave up her spot in the YQ450 so Fauveau could race in the 100 and then ended up handling for Fauveau.
“Being a handler is 10 times harder than being a musher,” said Fauveau. “I was told it is the musher’s responsibility to acknowledge the handler, so Ilana Kingsley, I give you the award for the best handler.”
It was mentioned that there used to be a “Golden Rake” award for the best handlers. Smith said it would be good to bring back that award.
Quest rookie Silas Godber, now living in Carcross and at 18 the youngest musher in the race, finished sixth.
Whitehorse’s Claudia Wickert came in fifth, while Amelie Janin of Whitehorse finished fourth.
Nathaniel Hamlyn of Whitehorse came in third, and Whitehorse’s Jonathan Lucas was second.
Sean de Wolski of Fairbanks, finished first, and came up with his dog to accept his award.
The top three YQ100 mushers all received knives.
The two YQ250 mushers were up next.
Whitehorse’s Louve Tweddell came in second, while Crystal To of Carcross finished first.
Smith said it was an “impressive win for someone who’s really challenging herself and seeing how far she can go.”
The prestigious YQ450 mushers were up next.
The Red Lantern recipient was Misha Wiljes, an American-Czech living in Willow, Alaska.
Kailyn Olnes of Fairbanks, who came in third, said, “I hope to be back next year.”
Mayla Hill, now living in Carcross and who placed second, thanked fellow Elevation Kennel musher To for taking care of her pups.
“I wanted to say a special thanks to Aaron (Peck), for showing up and being an awesome handler this year and Crystal for bringing my puppy
team across the finish line. She did a great job with them.”
Tagish’s Michelle Phillips, of course, came in first to defend her title.
She thanked her handler of 15 years, Doug Vollman of Copper Centre, Alaska, who is planning on retiring from the race, much to Phillips’ sadness. She also mentioned that he suffered frostbite on this Quest.
“I’d like to say a special shout-out to our extra-special handler, Doug. He’s says he’s going to retire; so very sad. I think you should all pressure him to continue on.”
After thanking her sponsors, Phillips added a thank you to Ed Hopkins.
“I’d like to thank my husband. Thank you very much.”
The special awards were then handed out.
The YQ100 Sportsmanship award went to Janin, while To and Tweddell were co-winners of the YQ250 Sportsmanship award.
To thanked Tweddell and her crew for their help during the race.
“I couldn’t have done this without Louve. She was my moral support throughout the entire race. We worked together all summer. When I found
out I was racing with just Louve, I was like, ‘great. Fun camping trip,’ To said.
“Really grateful to Louve’s handlers as well. When I got to Carmacks, my handler was gone.”
Her handler was busy tending to Hill’s needs.
“Lori (Tweddell) comes up to me and says, ‘if you need anything, I’m right here for you.’
“So super-grateful to you and your support group,” To said to Tweddell.
The YQ450 award was given to Casavant.
Referring to the fact that women took the top four spots in the 450, he jokingly said, “Where are the men? Where are they – behind their
computer? Playing some game? Or they love the snowmobile. I don’t know.”
The Challenge of the North Award for the musher who exemplifies the spirit of the Yukon Quest was given to Olnes.
She talked about how they made it to the race despite broken leaf springs on their trailer. She was given a chainsaw for her troubles.
“It was nice to have a great handler – my husband Justin,” said Olnes.
“I got off the race, and the first thing Justin said to me was, ‘the leaf springs broke on the trailer. But don’t worry ... I tied it with a ratchet strap.’”
Jacob Industries fixed the couple’s trailer.
The Rookie of the Year award went to To, who gave a shout-out to Elevation Kennel leader Peck and her kennel mate Hill. To remarked, “I do everything Mayla does.”
Next, Barth announced the Vet’s Choice recipients.
Fauveau won in the YQ100, while in the 250, Tweddell took home the award. The vet’s choice for the 450 was Olnes.
Barth called it “fantastic” that three women took home the awards.
“If those faces are the future of mushing, we shall not worry.”
He also told a story about how his team had suffered a flat tire on the way to Dawson City (even though the race didn’t make it there) and how Wiljes’ crew helped them out with it.
An extremely animated Casavant, known as the “Singing Musher”, told a funny story about suffering from a trail ailment common to male mushers in cold weather which was complicated by his other issue requiring Pepto Bismol.
Wiljes was given her Red Lantern, then told a touching story about how Casavant used his heavy parka to cover up one of his dogs in his sled,
sacrificing his own comfort in the process.
Smith thanked operations manager Abi Horobin for her tremendous effort in helping hold the race.
“I think Abi deserves all of the credit for everything that happened in this race because the amount of commitment was just extraordinary.”
Tayler, in turn, thanked Smith for his outstanding effort, commenting that he didn’t realize how much he did to get the race organized.
At the end of the evening, every musher in every race received either an axe or a hatchet, and a draw was held in which each of them received a prize.
The prizes included a portable wood stove, a cooking stove, frying pans and many other
Each musher also received a painting from various artists. Phillips received a portrait of the Matthew Watson General Store and Carcross Hotel by Jim Robb.