Ready, set, go: Yukon Quest sled dog race sets off from Whitehorse
Over the next 9 days, 30 teams will cover 1,600 km to Fairbanks, Alaska
More than a thousand people lined the start of the 2019 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse — cheering on mushers and their dog teams despite temperatures plummeting into the –30s C.
Howling dogs strained to begin their charge down the trail, and applause erupted from the crowd as the first of 30 teams began a slow gallop out of the gate on Saturday morning.
Over the next nine days, the teams will cover a gruelling 1,600 kilometres before reaching the finish line in Fairbanks, Alaska.
While the quest has been around for 36 years, it follows routes that go back over a century that were used by stampeders on their way to the Klondike Gold Rush and then onto Alaska to find gold.
Before the race started, fans had a chance to meet the mushers.
Curt Perano is originally from New Zealand. He's a Yukon Quest veteran and has been training in Minnesota and Alaska. Saturday's cold snap didn't faze him.
"It's been a warm winter, hasn't it? But this is Quest and this is what you normally get, so I think we all kind of expected it to change last minute," he said.
Further along the trail, fans gathered by the Takhini River Bridge to get a closer glimpse of the mushers and their teams.
Sohil Agarwal moved to Whitehorse four months ago. He used to live in Mumbai where it's common for temperatures to reach 40 C.
"My friends here ... they encouraged me to go out in the -25 C and below because I couldn't do it by myself. And then I see all these wonderful dogs racing," he said.
Some fans, like Rhonda Mortimer from Tasmania, travelled halfway around the world to see the Yukon Quest.
"A girlfriend at home said, 'you don't even like dogs!' These are different dogs and we don't have dog sledding in Australia, it's such a wonderful sport," she said.
This will be Nathaniel Hamlyn's second Yukon Quest.
"This year, I'm feeling more confident for sure. Last year, it was kind of a shot in the dark. I didn't know what I was doing," said the 24-year-old musher or dogsled driver from Mount Lorne, Yukon.
Last year, Hamlyn was the Red Lantern winner, a distinction that goes to the musher who finishes in last place.
Finishing the race at all is a feat. Many say the Yukon Quest is tougher than its Alaskan cousin, the Iditarod.
The Yukon Quest includes four mountain ranges, each at least 1,000 metres high, along with fewer checkpoints, which means longer distances between rest stops. It's also a month earlier, meaning it's darker and colder.
Those challenges are what attract competitors from Yukon and Alaska, as well as France, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and New Brunswick.
Yukon Quest rookie Remy Leduc drove from Glenwood, N.B., to Whitehorse to compete in the race.
"We managed to do it in about six days, and everything went fairly well," he said.
Leduc said driving across the country with 17 dogs meant getting into a routine.
"Enough water so that they don't dehydrate, but not too much that we have to let them out to pee."
This year, Yukon Quest organizers have been keeping a close eye on the weather.
"The thing you have to remember about the trail is the only thing constant is change. It changes every minute of every hour of every day," said Sgt. John Mitchell of the Canadian Rangers.
Each year, the Rangers break and maintain the Canadian side of the trail.
Mitchell says the latest trail conditions are better than expected, but that does not stop the trail from having technical challenges, like overflow, or water seeping through ice, when crossing rivers.
Parts of the trail have little snow, so changes have been made to the race, including trucking dogs between the Braeburn and Carmacks checkpoints and allowing mushers to use as few as eight dogs from Whitehorse to Pelly Crossing, Yukon.
"You know, it's a smart choice for the dogs and the mushers," said Michelle Phillips, a musher from Tagish, Yukon.
This will be Phillips's seventh Yukon Quest.
"You can't do anything. You can just make the race safe for all of us," she said.