Glenwood musher to tackle Yukon Quest
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” As Bill Pinkham nears, with a bucket of food dangling from each hand, a cacophony of barks and howls busts out.
It’s breakfast time at the musher’s country kennel, and Pinkham’s legion of Alaskan huskies is primed to kick off a day of rest and relaxation with a little grub.
Fresh off days flavored with arduous training runs, the dogs earned every minute of their clean slate, and every bite of their kibble, meat and supplement medley.
After years of grooming his spunky canines for the granddaddy of dog-sled races, the Iditarod, Pinkham’s pups will tackle new competition in 2008 ” the lesser-known but equally daunting Yukon Quest.
It’s an interesting twist to the Glenwood Springs musher’s relatively young sledding career, considering the 49-year-old last year registered a personal-best 32nd-place finish at his fifth straight Iditarod.
But it’s a decision driven by myriad reasons, chief among them money and logistics.
“There are probably a few reasons,” he said. “One is financial. It’s less expensive to do and, logistically, it’s easier in some ways. and I have a bunch of young dogs.
“And, partly with the money thing, I know I can’t do any better (at the Iditarod). It’s possible, but I’m probably not going to finish in the money. To spend the extra money, I might as well go to the Quest. I could make a little money. The structure is not as competitive.”
Pinkham’s 2008 changeup will get under way when he begins his trek north shortly after New Year’s, a full month before the race’s start. Why so early? To permit time for travel, acclamation to the chilly environs and training runs.
Like the Alaska-exclusive Iditarod, the Quest rund through much of Alaska. The race takes off from Fairbanks on Feb. 9 and, roughly 1,000 miles later, wraps in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Temperatures will hit 40 below and mushers and their dogs will contend with winds that reach up to 100 miles an hour.
“It’s darker and usually colder,” said Pinkham, who’s no stranger to the Quest, having raced it in both 2001 and 2002. “The terrain is rough, very remote. The trail is not quite as set as the Iditarod. It requires you to really find the trail a little more, less marking. It can be pretty challenging, both mentally and physically.”
The variances between the two races don’t end with their start dates. The 1,150-mile Iditarod operates with more checkpoints and starts with 16 dogs to the Quest’s 14.
Oh, and the Iditarod casts a mighty big shadow on the Quest, something Pinkham is fully embracing.
“The Quest is a little more relaxing,” he said. “It’s a tough race but it’s more relaxing, as far as dealing with people and and energy. You’re out there enjoying what you’re doing rather than getting caught up in the exposure, the vibe and media of the Iditarod.”
A mighty familiar face will be there to lend Pinkham a helping hand on the trail ” his girlfriend, Jodi Swanson. Dogs brought the pair together when Swanson, a Minnesota native, applied to assist Pinkham at the kennel two years back.
Sparks immediately flew and a relationship ” both professional and personal ” took root.
“We just instantly had a connection,” said Swanson, herself a dogsledding enthusiast. “I know he has the same passion for dogs. They have a bond. They trust him. Together, they do this amazing thing.”
Swanson and her friend, Amy Varsek, will serve as Pinkham’s handlers up north. Swanson and Varsek paired up for a 1,200-mile sledding expedition through northern Canada a few years back.
“There’s something beautiful and magical about being outside in the winter, with these animals dependent on you,” Swanson said. “You form a team and bond with them. It’s a pretty amazing experience. You either love it or hate it. It’s definitely a lifestyle choice, and I love it.”
Having trained a team of dogs for their trek, it’s safe to say Pinkham’s handlers know a thing or two about mushing.
“While Bill’s in the race, we’re the support and cleanup crew,” said Swanson, who also lent a hand at last year’s Iditarod. “If he drops any dogs or equipment or supplies he leaves behind, we follow along and pick it up.”