Photo by Jeff Richardson/News-Miner. Spot Personal Trackers are displayed on a table at Yukon Quest headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in Whitehorse. The units, which are carried by each musher, allow officials and the public to track their movements during the race.
WHITEHORSE, Yukon — SPOT Personal Trackers, whose use was indeed spotty sometimes during previous runs of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race, are becoming an important component of the event after several rounds of testing and refinement.
The trackers, which are mandatory gear for the 26 entrants in this year’s Quest, allow virtual spectators to follow sled dog teams on the Internet. While mushers are grinding their way through 1,000 miles of frigid trails starting Saturday, fans of the race can get an up-to-the minute update on the location of their favorite teams.
“It’s brought in a different community of fans,” race manager Alex Olesen said. “It’s possible to be fans in a different way now.”
The SPOT units were first introduced to the race four years ago, providing an unprecedented opportunity to follow the race. The technology wasn’t quite foolproof, with signals sometimes abruptly vanishing and causing mushers to disappear from the trail map.
Many of those glitches have been addressed through trial and error, said Quest officials, who expect the most reliable tracking system yet for the 2013 race.
The units, which were once simply packed away on sled bags, will be mounted near the handle of sleds this year to provide a better signal. Volunteers at each checkpoint also have been better instructed to regularly reset the units, which allows them to continue transmitting, Olesen said.
Quest officials have discovered that the SPOT units require specific batteries to function well. Olesen said he bought every available Energizer lithium AAA in Fairbanks and Whitehorse to ensure the units would make it through the race.
Race marshal Doug Grilliot said he’s heard “nothing but huge, positive reviews” from fans and said the SPOT units also provide a new layer of safety for mushers. In addition to serving as trackers, they’re all equipped with buttons that summon rescuers. Pressing one of those buttons — marked “help” or “911” depending on the urgency of the situation — disqualifies a musher from the race but brings a crew to deliver aid.
Grilliot said they allow race officials to better perform safety checks even when help isn’t requested. If a team stops moving for an extended stretch in an odd place — the middle of a river, for example — Grilliot can send race officials out to make sure everything is OK.
“It’s making our job a lot easier,” he said.
Being able to know the position of rival mushers is a new wrinkle to the sport, which left some competitors wary of the devices. The safety factor, along with the possibility to boost the race’s fan base, has helped ease musher skepticism about the trackers, Grilliot said.
The SPOT units are provided by Track Leaders, a Quest sponsor. Matthew Lee, a company spokesman, said it’s been a gradual process to integrate the emergency trackers into the sport. After several years of tests, he said most of the bugs seem to have been worked out.
Lee said the transmitters were used on the Kuskokwim 300 last week with almost no complications. A new SPOT unit will be introduced this summer that doesn’t need to be reset, he said, which should make them better suited to long-distance races.
“It is a work in progress, and we hope the product gets better every year,” Lee said.
The Yukon Quest begins Saturday in Whitehorse. The race can be tracked at www.yukonquest.com.