Yukon musher Ed Hopkins will set out on his eighth Yukon Quest next month, but just his second from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
Only back in 1994 did he race the 1,000-mile Quest in an even-numbered year, in which the race runs eastwardly.
“It’s just the way it worked out,” said Hopkins. “But I guess I like leaving from Whitehorse – I like waking up in my own bed the morning before the start of the race.”
Hopkins, who lives in 10 Mile outside of Tagish, is one of five Yukon mushers registered for the 33rd annual race that begins on Feb. 6.
With a third place finish last year – his best to date – the 51-year-old veteran is arguably Yukon’s top contender in the field of 25 teams.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m pretty excited for it,” said Hopkins. “I’m hoping it’ll be a pretty nice run.
“I think it’s just the dogs that kind of clicked,” he added of last year’s race. “I was just hanging on. That’s all I was doing. They seemed to know what they were doing.”
Hopkins, whose previous best finish was eighth in 2005 and in 1994, plans to use the same team as last year. At the front will be brother-sister duo of Mai Tai and Caesar. He plans to put his team through the paces this weekend at the Copper Basin 300, his first big race of the season.
“I’m going to the Copper Basin this weekend and I’ll be taking most of the dogs there and seeing how they do,” said Hopkins.
“I’ll be using the same two leaders. They did pretty well at last year’s Quest and they finished the Iditarod too … They are pretty well seasoned.”
Yukon will also be represented by Whitehorse’s Rob Cooke, 49, racing his third Quest. He placed 16th last year, 18th in 2013 and also 50th in last year’s Iditarod.
Mendenhall’s Luc Tweddell, 40, is registered for his second Quest, following a 14th place finish in 2009.
Whitehorse’s Yuka Honda, 43, is also set for her second outing. She placed 15th in 2012.
Mendenhall’s Gaetan Pierrard is the only rookie of the Yukoners. The 39-year-old placed fourth in last season’s Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race in Dawson City and was named Rookie of the Year in the event.
Hank DeBruin of Haliburton, Ont. is the only other Canadian registered besides the Yukoners. The 53-year-old has raced the Quest once before, taking eighth in 2014.
Three past champions, including last year’s winner Brent Sass, are set to hit the 1,600-kilometre trail.
Sass, a 36-year-old of Eureka, Alaska, doesn’t mind having the defending-champ target on his back.
“I just think people now see me as a real contender, which gives me more confidence,” said Sass in a recent email to the News. “I’m more excited, confident and fired up for my 10th Quest, the way I was for any of the nine before! It’s going to be an exciting race!”
Two Rivers, Alaska’s Allen Moore is registered for the race a sixth year in a row. The 58-year-old won in 2013 and 2014 and placed second behind Sass last year.
2012 champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, is returning for his 16th Yukon Quest. The 48-year-old placed second behind Moore in 2013 and 2014, and fifth last year.
Sass, along with his lead dog Basin, finished the 2015 Quest in nine days, 12 hours and 49 minutes last February. Moore reached the finish line about an hour and 14 minutes later.
“Basin is still very strong but I will have 10 dogs I consider leaders in the team,” said Sass. “Won’t know until the race is over who will shine the brightest this year. And that’s exciting! I describe all my dogs as special!
“(I am) confident! I have better base, more quality time on the trail then ever before! It’s a great mix of seasoned veterans with some very, very talented two to three-year-olds fighting for a spot. At least 10 of them will be back from last year’s team.”
Twenty-five teams are also signed up for the Yukon Quest 300 – the 300-mile race – from Fairbanks to Circle, Alaska. Among them is 2014 champ Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers. The 46-year-old is the only woman to win the Yukon Quest 1,000, which she did in 2000. She also placed second in the Iditarod three years in a row between 2012 and 2014.
Just two Yukoners are entered in the 300. Fox Lake’s Fabian Schmitz and Mendenhall’s Olaf Thurau have each done the race once before, but both years in which the race began in Whitehorse, not Fairbanks.
“I think it’s going to be fun. I wanted to see the trail on the Alaska side,” said Schmitz. “That’s what really appealed to me: seeing something else, see a different part of that 1,000-mile trail.”
Schmitz placed 15th in 2011 and Thurau fourth in the 2013.
Last year’s winner, Tagish’s Michelle Phillips, is not entered but is third down on the waiting list.
Phillips, who is Hopkins’ wife, is registered for the Iditarod.
“My wife is doing a very good job at training me too,” said Hopkins. “She’s keeping me on a pretty good schedule, making sure I’m out there training when I should.”
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