An hour before the 1,600-kilometre Yukon Quest was set to start most mushers pack their sleds. Kyla Boivin was tearing hers apart.
The Fish Lake musher was worried it wouldn’t hold up in the jumble ice – expected to be some of the worst ever seen on the Quest trail.
“I decided not to run it,” she said, pulling a plastic runner off the old sled frame that was made of cut-up hockey sticks.
“It’s spur of the moment.”
Boivin was talking to Carcross musher William Kleedehn the night before the race.
“And he said he had a spare sled I could use, if I promised not to break it,” she said.
“I guess I’ll owe him some beer or some money.
“And if I break it, I’ll owe him $2,000.”
The new sled didn’t arrive until a couple of hours before she was scheduled to leave the start chute in downtown Whitehorse.
“It’s five or six pounds lighter,” said Boivin. “Over 1,000 miles, that really adds up.”
Sleds weren’t the only last-minute swaps taking place Saturday morning.
Yukon rookie Luc Tweddell pulled up to the start line in a strange truck.SFlb”Everything was too perfect, so I figured something would happen,” said Tweddell.
The night before the race, his dog truck’s transmission blew.
He managed to borrow a truck from former Quest musher Paul Geoffrion.
“But it hasn’t been running and the dogs have chewed everything,” said Tweddell, pointing out gnawed wires where the brakelights should have been.
The last-minute truck crisis kept Tweddell from getting nervous.
“I didn’t have time for that,” he said.
“Always something happens that you didn’t plan,” said Marie-Claude Dufresme.
Keeping an eye on their two-year-old son, Jean-Denis Britten’s partner was collecting soup dishes from the dogs hooked around their cube van.
A mix of warm water and meat, the soup gives the dogs a boost of energy and helps keep them hydrated.
“This is the most stressful time,” said Dufresme.
“It’s all about time.”
If a musher isn’t at the start chute on cue, they have to wait until all the other mushers have left.
But heading out at the back of the pack didn’t seem to faze Normand Casavant.
“I’m always happy,” said the Quebec rookie slotted to leave last, in 29th place.
“I do the dance de Saint Gai,” he added, doing a little jig. “It’s the happy dance.”
Leaving just four spots in front of him, Jason Mackey was also pleased with his bib number.
“It was a good draw,” he said. “The trail’s not much worse for us at the back.
“The only trouble will be finding a camping spot – the good ones will all be taken.”
On top of Mackey’s sled was a small Ziploc bag of multicoloured pills.
The Alaskan musher has a couple teeth that are bothering him.
“But it’s too expensive to get them pulled,” he said. The antibiotics are there to keep things under control.
Kleedehn is also up against his body in this race.
A couple of days ago, the Quest veteran pinched a nerve in his back.
“I could only walk half-assed,” he said.
“And usually I never have back problems.”
The day before the race, Kleedehn, who sports a prosthetic leg, took a test run to see if he could hold on.
It’ll be OK as long as there are no major tangles, he said.
Russ Bybee also took a test run before the race, to limber up his dogs who’d spent the last few days tucked into their boxes.
It didn’t go well.
“I smashed into a post,” he said.
“I’m not going to tell you where, because there may be damage to the post.
“It’s amazing what can happen in 50-feet with a seven-dog team.”
Luckily, Bybee was running his spare sled. “It’s smashed,” he said.
Mackey, an Iditarod veteran, had a sled made especially for the Quest.
“It’s beefed up,” he said.
“It needs to be strong.”
But strength isn’t everything.
Brent Sass has stuffed animals tied to his sled’s handlebar.
“They’ve ridden on there for the Iditarod and the Quest,” said last year’s fifth-place finisher.
“So I figured they should just stay on.”
Sass also has a big, round plastic thermometer affixed to the side of his sled with electrical tape.
“Yesterday it was reading 70 above,” he said with a laugh.
With the temperature hovering around minus 30, Sass was happy.
“It’s perfect,” he said.
Jamaican musher Newton Marshal didn’t agree.
“It’s a little bit cold this morning,” he said.
“I hope it warms up a bit.”
It is cold, added Yuka Honda.
The Japanese musher was wearing her handler’s parka.
“I forgot mine this morning,” she said.
Someone was travelling back the 30-minutes to get it for her before the race.
The cold wasn’t bothering local musher Sebastian Schnuelle, because perched on over poufy hair was a stuffed husky cap.
It looked goofy.
“I got it in Juneau,” he said. “Of course. Where else could you get something like this?”
Leaving the start chute in 20th place, Schnuelle was still wearing the hat.
But by the time he went under the Takhini River bridge, he was sitting on the seat behind his sled, and had opted for something that covered his ears.
A crowd of several hundred gathered in front of the White Pass building to watch the racers leave on Valentine’s Day.
Most of the mushers were too busy to wax romantic, but screaming out of the starting chute second last, veteran Wayne Hall threw a box of chocolates at his wife on the way past.
They just missed her head.
Contact Genesee Keevil at