The Yukon Quest is one of the toughest races in the world, but there’s a lot more to it than competition, says defending champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska.
“We’re all here to race, but we’re also here to put on a good show for everybody,” said Neff. “I know everybody thinks it’s a race, but we’re here to enjoy life. It’s not just about competition, it’s about realizing how lucky we are to do what we do. We all have amazing dogs and we actually enjoy travelling with our dog teams. We love other people’s dogs as much as we love our own. If you’re a true dog person, it’s not just about you and your dogs, it’s about everybody’s dogs.”
Neff is one of three past champions set to hit the trail for the 34th annual Yukon Quest on Saturday.
The 49-year-old, who also won in 2012, will be racing his 17th Quest, a 1,600-kilometre international sled dog race running this year from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Neff, who also placed second in 2013 and 2014, and third in 2005 and 2010, has never won it in a year the race ends in Fairbanks.
“I’ve never won it in Fairbanks, only in Whitehorse,” said Neff. “That’s my goal this year, to win the race in Alaska.”
“Guys like Dave Dalton and Brent Sass, we’re all family, and we come back because we love doing it. We love the feel that we get from the Yukoners. Dave will back me up on this: half the fun is going to Dawson City. The party’s just begun.”
His strategy: “Hang out near Brent Sass and hope his dogs are breaking trail,” said Neff to the laughter of Sass, sitting nearby.
It might not be a bad strategy. Sass, another past champ, is back for his 11th Quest. The 37-year-old from Eureka, Alaska won in 2015, placed second last year behind Neff, and took third in 2013.
Two Rivers, Alaska’s Allen Moore will begin his seventh Quest on Saturday. The 59-year-old won consecutive titles in 2013 and 2014 — both as the only musher ever to win in under nine days — and took third last year.
Of the 21 teams registered for the race, six are Canadian, and five of those are Yukoners.
10 Mile’s Ed Hopkins was the race’s top Yukoner (and Canadian) last year with a fifth-place finish. He’s back for his eighth Quest.
“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” said Hopkins. “It’ll be pretty tough (with) good competition. It’s an interesting race to get through.”
“I have some solid veterans who are young, between three and five years old — a pretty solid group. We’ll see what happens at the end of it all.”
Hopkins, 52, placed third in 2015 for his best finish to date. Half of the team he’s running has done the Quest, the other half the Iditarod, he said.
As for strategy: “It changes every year,” said Hopkins. “You can’t always base it on the same strategy from the year before.”
Anything more specific? “I’m not going to tell you a thing,” he said.
“Good luck to all the competitors and congrats to all the volunteers who help with the Quest,” he added.
Brian Wilmshurst of Dawson City — the race’s halfway point — will set off on his fifth Quest on Saturday. The 35-year-old placed 12th last year and 10th in 2014 for his best finish to date, also taking the Sportsmanship Award that year.
Yukon’s Yuka Honda, 44, is one of six female mushers in this year’s field. Honda, who resides near Carcross, placed ninth last year in her second Quest.
Whitehorse’s Rob Cooke, 50, is back for his fourth Quest following a 17th place showing last year.
Mendenhall, Yukon’s Gaetan Pierrard, 40, finished one spot in behind Cooke in his rookie year last year. Cooke and Pierrard were the first two mushers to sign up for this year’s race.
While this year’s race has 16 “veterans” with at least one previous Quest race under their belt, the most veteran is Healy, Alaska’s Dave Dalton. This year’s race will be the 58-year-old’s 27th, with third place finishes in 2004 and 2008 marking his best finishes. He placed 11th the last two years.
The Yukon Quest will begin Saturday at 11 a.m. at Shipyards Park. Its little sibling, the Yukon Quest 300, starts at 3 p.m. at Shipyards.
Last year’s winner Jessie Holmes of Nenana, Alaska, who won the 300 in his rookie year, is not entered in this year’s 483-kilometre race to Pelly Crossing. But a pair of recent champs are.
10 Mile’s Michelle Phillips, who won the race the last two times it started in Whitehorse, will be looking for her third title. The 48-year-old, who is Hopkin’s partner, has raced the 1,000-mile Quest six times, with five top-10 results.
Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle will attempt to take her second YQ300 win, having won in 2014. Zirkle, 47, became the first woman to win the full-length Quest in 2000 and has placed second in the Iditarod three times.
Phillips beat Zirkle by just eight seconds to win her 2013 title.
Also among the field of 23 teams is Whitehorse’s Hans Gatt. The name should sound familiar. The 58-year-old is tied for the most Quest 1,000 titles with four. This year’s 300 will be his first.
Gerry Willomitzer of Shallow Bay, Yukon, will try to regain his 2011 YQ300 title. The 47-year-old also placed third in the Quest 1,000 in 2007.
Also back for another go: Mount Lorne’s Magnus Kaltenborn, who placed second in 2010; Whitehorse’s Susie Rogan, who was fourth in 2009; Whitehorse’s Claudia Wickert, who was fifth in 2015; and Whitehorse’s Marcelle Fressineau, who was sixth in 2013.
Yukon will also be represented by Whitehorse rookies Jean-Marc Champeval, Melissa Schenke, Thomas Verin and Nathaniel Hamlyn, the youngest in the field at just 22.
Other Yukon rookies in the 300 are Grizzly Valley’s Jacob Heigers, Dawson’s Kyla Boivin, and Dawson’s Jason Biasetti.
“We just got a trail report today (Wednesday) from the Alaska side and it looks all right,” said race marshal Fabian Schmidt. “Certain spots where we often have low snow, there’s a bit more snow this year. Nothing was really standing out.
“We received reports from the Yukon side, but the crew is still on the way. They called in from near Pelly and today they called in from the Carmacks area, and it sounds all good. So we’re pretty confident we have a good trail this year.”
Contact Tom Patrick at email@example.com