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Gus Guenther prepares to start Yukon Quest

Gustave Guenther before the start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on February 4 in Fairbanks, Alaska (Dean Cunkelman photo)

Alaskan dogsledder Gustave Guenther, featured in “Call of the Wild” from IUP Magazine’s Fall-Winter issue, finished 13th in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. He completed the thousand-mile course from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, on February 16 in 11 days and 19 hours.

“I was extremely pleased. It’s an extremely competitive race,” said Gus, who graduated from IUP in 2011, though he entered with the Class of 1990. Gus noted that, in a typical Yukon Quest, as many as one-third of participants don’t finish because of the course’s difficulty.

Gus’s team had a rough start, he said. Three of the dogs developed kennel cough early on, and Gus had to give them plenty of rest to keep their immunity up. Eventually, he had to leave three dogs with a handler and finish the race with a smaller team. Despite that, he consistently had some of the fastest running times of the race.

“The dogs were very healthy and amazing,” he said. “The last 50 miles of a thousand-mile race, I was stepping on the break. They were running stronger and stronger. Twelve days across some of the roughest wilderness, and they were thriving.”

The weather was warm compared to last year, when temperatures dipped to 50 below zero, Gus said. While it was 20 to 30 below for the Alaskan portion of the trail, temperatures were around zero on the Canadian side. Gus combated the relative warmth by running after dark, which he said he prefers anyway.

Gus Guenther lines up with dogs

Gus Guenther and his team of dogs lined up at the start of the race February 4 in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Dean Cunkelman photo)

He described the trail as far more challenging than that of the Iditarod, a race he’s run twice, yet the dogs fully recovered within a week. In fact, two weeks after finishing the Quest, they were to start the better-known thousand-mile trek.

What makes that possible is the dogs’ training, Gus said. “A 50-, 60-, or 70-mile run is just another afternoon to them. They’re in the peak of their condition. I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I’m still amazed at how they continue to get stronger.”

At the halfway point, Gus wondered how they would go another 500 miles pulling so much weight. “Not only did they do it, but they’re happy to do it.”

In addition to testing the dogs’ strength and endurance, the course allowed Gus to push his own limits. “You’re testing yourself against the elements,” he said. “Someone could die out there.”

While Gus was pleased to receive prize money, which goes to the top 15 finishers, he said it offsets the costs of racing only a bit. The bigger prize was seeing the “wild, untouched area” where the course led him. “That will stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

“I went in knowing that, if I make it back with healthy dogs and without frostbite, it’s a successful race.”

Fellow Alaskan and alumnus Dean Cunkelman ’98 was on hand to take photos of Gus near the start line. Dean has worked as a safety specialist at ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s North Slope for the last three years. “I love Alaska because I love adventure,” Dean said. “And it is endless here.”