'I'm just happy to be here': Rookie musher OK with last place finish in Yukon Quest

Nathaniel Hamlyn, 23, crossed the finish line at 11:46 p.m. Thursday night.

Brutally cold weather forces half of teams to quit 1,600-km race

Nathaniel Hamlyn, 23, was last to finish the Yukon Quest this year. He was one of only 13 mushers to make it to the finish line out of 26 total. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Heavy snowfall completely obscured the trail as Nathaniel Hamlyn approached the end of the Yukon Quest Thursday night.

"It was really unnerving knowing that I was literally the only person out there," he said.

"If the dogs quit or didn't want to go any further I would be out there for a long time, alone."

It turns out the 23-year-old was not left stranded in the Yukon wilderness — he crossed the Whitehorse finish line to a chorus of cheers from a crowd that had stayed out to see him arrive at 11:46 p.m.

The Yukon Quest is a 1,600-kilometre race between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse. Mushers come from around the world to compete, with this year's race seeing athletes from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, U.S.A., and the U.K. Out of this year's 26 competitors, 11, including Hamlyn, were rookies.

Hamlyn, who is from Yellowknife, was the 13th musher to finish this year's Yukon Quest with a time of 12 days, 11 hours and 13 minutes. For this achievement he was the recipient of the Red Lantern award — which is given to the last musher to finish the race.

He was last, but he finished. Conditions in this year's Yukon Quest were so brutally cold that half the mushers were forced to drop out along the way.

"I was quite surprised when a lot of people started dropping out," said Hamlyn after he finished the race.

"I am sorry they had to drop out. But I'm just happy to be here."

Health of dogs

The coldest temperature he experienced along the way was –50 C near Birch Creek where he was camping, said Hamlyn. He was able to avoid frostbite, which he credits to the fact he always kept moving and had good gear to keep from freezing.

The challenges Hamlyn faced concerned the health of his dogs — he started the race with his entire kennel of 12 dogs, but finished the race with seven.

"The more dogs you have, the more excitement they have, so they kind of feed off each other," he said, explaining why it was hard on the team to lose two dogs he refers to as the "cheerleaders" of the pack.

But Hamlyn said he is used to running with teams as small as six or eight dogs. He said this helped him finish the race despite the small team.

"It did drop morale a bit, but I think I got it back toward the end," he said.

After the Yukon Quest, Hamlyn is planning to run the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race in Dawson City next month, followed by a couple more races in Whitehorse, before travelling to Yellowknife for a race in April.

With files from Philippe Morin

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