Leaving a stamp on the Quest
After 25 years, Carufel’s cachets are a race tradition
Published Sunday, February 10, 2008
Caye Carufel has never run a Yukon Quest. But a little piece of her travels with every musher who’s ever entered the race.
Carufel is responsible for putting together the Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race cachets, sets of commemorative envelopes carried by every musher in the contest. What started out as a lark for the Fairbanks resident has turned into an annual enterprise, one she’s undertaken through thick and thin every year since the Quest began in 1984.
“I just think it’s fun,” said the spry 82-year-old. “I love to do things like this. If I make money, OK, if I don’t make money, OK. If I don’t sell them all I don’t care, it’s just a fun thing.”
Cachets are popular collector’s items among philatelists: they’re stamped, decorative envelopes issued to commemorate an event, like an inauguration or unveiling, or a new stamp’s first day of issue. Carufel got in on the ground floor when two members of the now-defunct Northern Lights Stamp Club proposed the Quest cachet idea in 1984, in part because the race follows an old mail route.
“Two fellows and myself decided, let’s do a cachet for the race, and the mushers can carry the mail across on the mail trail,” she related.
Both partners have since moved on, and Carufel has been tackling the complex endeavor solo for more than a decade. Each year she enlists an artist to design artwork for the envelope, with designs so far ranging from dramatic paintings of mushers, to atmospheric photographs, to comic sketches of dogs. Carufel designs the overall look of the cachet, has 500 copies printed — though she’s downsized it to 300 this year — puts a United States and a Canada stamp on each and has the post office at the race’s start, either Fairbanks or Whitehorse, cancel one of them. Then she delivers a packet of envelopes to the mushers, who carry them to the end of the trail — and a waiting Carufel, who retrieves them at the Quest banquet and has them cancelled again in the ending city.
Ron Inouye, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks library employee who collects the cachets, said he admires the inordinate amount of labor Carufel puts into them. “The work is magnified many times by the work being done that way,” he said of the elaborate process. “That really takes a lot of care and a lot of motivation.”
This year, each musher received 11 envelopes, of which they were required to sign 10. Each musher can keep the unsigned envelope as a souvenir; the rest Carufel sells for $10 each, mostly to mail-order collectors as far away as Russia and Japan.
At least, she tries to sell them. “I never sell them all,” she admitted. “I just stash them away … I have a big bookcase in the back room, and I have 25 years of shoeboxes from every year for the cachets.”
And there are sometimes a few she can’t put on the market for other reasons. “I’ve had some with a corner torn off by the dogs, some have gotten dropped in the water through the years, things like that.” Carufel has learned her lesson from such ruined cachets: Today, the envelopes are bundled up, covered in plastic wrap, ensconced in Masonite boards, covered in duct tape, and placed inside the mushers’ veterinary bags. The mushers are required by the Quest to carry the cachets, and race officials look for them at checkpoints.
The Quest has always happily obliged the requests of Carufel and her cohorts for the mushers to carry the cachets, principally because the practice commemorates the history of the Quest route as a mail trail. Dog mushers delivered winter mail along parts of the remote and hazardous route for decades, from gold rush days until mail planes put them out of business around the late 1930s. Mail routes stretched from Fairbanks to Dawson and points in between, with mushers hitting the trail each fall soon after the riverboats stopped running.
“From Central to Circle, on the Yukon River basically, that was the old mail route,” noted Leroy Shank, one of the founders of the Quest. “The frozen Yukon River has probably been a highway since man existed.”
Shank said mushers have never complained about carrying the tiny loads, and that many — himself included — appreciate the free souvenir.
“It was something people went along with, because people wanted them — the mushers wanted them for themselves,” he explained. “Especially if you didn’t win any prize money, you didn’t get much else out of it. It’s just an expensive vacation.”
It’s something of a mystery what Carufel herself gets out of her efforts. While Carufel is many things — mother of five, grandmother of eight, retired land manager, former resident of California, North Dakota, Arizona, and Massachusetts, and inveterate collector of mugs, magnets, plates, Quest pins, and assorted doodads — she’s never much been into postal collecting, which has always been her husband Louis’ interest. But when she and Louis moved to Fairbanks in 1984, he got involved in the Northern Lights Stamp Club and she just came along for company.
“I went there to look at the pretty pictures,” she laughed. “I just fell into (the cachets).”
However nebulous her initial rationale, Carufel has enjoyed the task: the annual trips to Whitehorse, the chance to meet and befriend some of the mushers, and the opportunity to play a minor role in one of the world’s toughest races. Though she admits to not being an obsessive mushing fan, Carufel nonetheless has her favorites: she’s long been friends with Quest veteran Frank Turner, and she also always “root(s) for the girls.”
Over the years, Carufel has created a noteworthy body of work, and this year was asked by the Fairbanks Community Museum to put together a display of the covers. The result is a colorful collage of men and women in heavy parkas, auroras dancing over sleds, and dozens of dogs — running, resting, and even playing roulette. On No. 6 envelopes, Carufel has crafted a comprehensive memento of the history of the race.
The display may prove the summation of Carufel’s cachet career. While she is still plenty energetic, she hopes to hand off the reins soon.
“I’ve been trying to find somebody to take over, because I’m really not that young anymore,” she said. “Can’t run as fast as I used to.”
That someone might be Inouye, who gave her a hand prepping the cachets this year. Inouye said he’d consider taking over, but not before he learns more about the process and hopefully finds a partner or two.
“I’m sure it will continue on in some form,” he said. “There’s got to be more people to come forward and help with it.”
Tom Moran is a former News-Miner reporter and currently a master’s of fine arts student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.