When the 15 mushers registered in the 2020 Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race get to the starting chute in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 1 to start the 1,600-kilometre trek to Whitehorse, all eyes will be on the mushers and dogs who’ve spent years preparing for the trip.
There is, however, another equally as important cog in the machine that is the Quest — the sleds.
More than just a platform to carry the musher behind the dogs, the sleds used in long-distance mushing are technological marvels in their own right, composed of high-tech materials and refined over the years to be as light, durable and reliable as possible.
Hans Gatt, a four-time Yukon Quest winner and Whitehorse resident, has been making sleds for as long as he’s been in mushing.
“I got a couple of Huskies — that was about 30 years ago — and immediately started building a sled out of skis,” said Gatt. “That was the first step and it just went from there.”
People liked his sleds, he said, and soon orders started to come in.
“That’s how it all got started.”
Traditionally made out of wood, sleds today are typically constructed from much fancier and more suitable materials — typically fibreglass, carbon fibre, aluminum and plastics.
Although the Iditarod allows mushers to use multiple sleds during the race, the Yukon Quest limits each musher to just one sled.
“You’ve got a wooden sled and you hit something, it’s pretty hard to fix and you’re very likely out of the race,” said Gatt. “So we were looking at different materials over the years and came up with this. There is a lot of aircraft aluminum used in them now.”
With the changes in materials, sleds got lighter, stronger and more flexible — all things Gatt said are ideal in a sled.
Gatt builds his sleds with aircraft aluminum runners that come from the United States designed to work with the Matrax runner system, allowing mushers to quickly and easily swap out the plastic runners.
The stanchions, the posts on the sled that serve as the base for the frame to secure the sled bags, are carbon fibre and use a linkage system to both provide flexibility and make repairs easier.
“Everything is built to be super flexible,” said Gatt. “There’s a linkage system and the sled can bend any way. That’s important to get the strength because if you built a sled really stiff, it will break every time you hit something.”
The sleds are typically able to withstand anything the trail throws at them.
“We hit trees all the time out there,” said Gatt. “Sometimes when there is not enough snow, you’re slamming into stuff. Jumbled ice is another one — if you hit one of those ice blocks, they’re very unforgiving so the sled just has to take that impact without breaking.
The front of the sled, sometimes called the brush bow, is made of the same material as the plastic sled runners — ultra-high molecular weight plastic, a material that is both very strong and has a very low co-efficient of friction that allows it to slide through and over the snow better.
As for the sled bags, Gatt said he uses 1000D Cordura — a nylon product much more durable than the ripstop he previously used.
“I used to run with lighter material, but really that stuff is only good for one race,” said Gatt. “There is so much rubbing going on and you end up with holes.”
Gatt said he also uses just two different size bolts on his sleds, explaining loose bolts is one of the most common mid-race repairs mushers may face.
“We use a lot of thread lock on all the bolts and so on, but they still rattle loose,” said Gatt. “I try to keep it very simple on my sleds … so you don’t have to carry a whole toolbox with you.”
Aside from the wrenches required to tighten the bolts, Gatt said wire and duct tape are two absolute essentials.
“Generally there is not much which can break,” said Gatt. “Some people do crash really, really hard and have to fix some stuff but over the years I think I came up with a design which is super reliable.”
One of the biggest changes to sled design for long distances was the introduction of “tail dragger” sleds, ones with a prominent seat or storage area located behind where the musher would stand, an idea Gatt credits to Jeff King, a past Quest and Iditarod winner.
“The idea was to distribute the weight a little better, so you’ve got some weight in the front, some weight in the back and you’re standing in the middle of the sled,” said Gatt. “It makes a turn very easy and you have a seat of course, which comes in pretty handy in a long-distance race.”
Another name for tail draggers, Gatt added, is OMS sleds or “old man sleds” although used by almost all long-distance mushers today.
The tail draggers have another trick up their sleeve though, as Gatt is quick to point out that by removing a handful of pins, the entire rear section of the sled can be removed — perfect for a finishing kick over the mountain summits headed to a Fairbanks finish line, for example.
“It can be done in like a minute at a checkpoint and we all do that at the end of the race,” said Gatt. “Last year in Central before going up Eagle Summit I did not want that box at the back because you really have to run behind the sled. At that point, it’s only 200 miles to go so you don’t need the extra space anymore.”
Having to run beside a tail dragger rather than behind, it turns out, is one of the few disadvantages.
While mushers are stopping by to have their sleds looked over, Gatt said he always builds a new sled for each 1,000-mile race.
“The biggest reason is probably because I’m always trying out new stuff,” he said with a laugh. “I’m always running a prototype and there are always some new ideas I want to try out.”
Sled building, it turns out, is quite a cooperative process with ideas like King’s tail dragger innovation quickly being adopted by others.
“I’ve come up with a lot of new stuff over the years and other people take the idea and implement it into their own sleds,” said Gatt. “There is nothing wrong with that. I mean, you could put a patent on everything but what’s the point in that?”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org