1,600 km Yukon Quest sled dog race kicks off in Whitehorse

From the starting line in Whitehorse, some of the world's top mushers are off on the 1,600-kilometre Yukon Quest sled dog race.

'One of the best trails I've seen in the history of the Quest,' says trail groomer on Canadian side

Musher Matt Hall arrives in Dawson City - the race's halfway point - during last year's Yukon Quest sled dog race. This year's race begins Saturday at 11 a.m. in Whitehorse. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

From the starting line in Whitehorse, some of the world's top mushers are off on the 1,600-kilometre Yukon Quest sled dog race. 

The race runs between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska, with the start and finish lines alternating from year to year.

The first team departed at 11 a.m., with the rest following at three-minute intervals. This year there are 21 teams, including four mushers new to the Quest. 

Only six mushers are Canadian, while most are from the U.S. A few are from Europe and Japan. 

A musher makes a last-minute adjustment ahead of the start of the 2017 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse. (Philippe Morin/CBC )

Yuka Honda, one of the Japanese mushers, was making her sixth start of the Yukon Quest, with two finishes. 

"There's nice people, nice mushers, nice dogs," she said ahead of this year's start. "It's a great race. I'm broke, but I keep coming back." 

A sled dog sits in the traces preparing for the start of the 2017 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

She's racing with an experienced group of sled dogs and for most of them, this will be their last time running the Quest.

"It's an older team, I want to enjoy this with them since it's the last race for them. I'm just going to enjoy it," she said. 

Some prefer starting on Yukon side

Former Quest Champion Brent Sass of Eureka, Alaska, said he was ready to race. The veteran musher came second last year, but was first the year before — the last time the race left from Whitehorse.

"I'm feeling good, real good," he said. "I'm real stoked. The dogs are ready, I'm ready. The go can't come soon enough."

Brent Sass is shown at the finish line of the 2016 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse. The race's starting point alternates between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. The Alaskan musher says he prefers to depart from Whitehorse and head toward home. (Steve Hossack)

Sass said he prefers beginning from the Yukon side.

"I prefer leaving Whitehorse," he said. "I prefer going back to Fairbanks. I enjoy having the big hills at the end, it adds a little bit of a challenge. It's not just a sprint to the finish. And then I get to finish near home." 

Last year's winner, Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, has returned to compete again, as has 2013 and 2014 champion Allen Moore of Two Rivers, Alaska.

"It's a bit warmer. Trail conditions are a little more mellow, it's the Yukon," Neff told CBC News. "Yukon is just a special place ... I just love the history of the race, it's like going back in time." 

Hugh Neff won the 2016 Yukon Quest with a time of nine days, one hour and 28 minutes. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

"We're going to get out in the country and rock and roll," he said. "I'm going to enjoy the moment, enjoy the day and have fun. I'm living the dream and enjoying the freedom that most people can only dream about." 

Ed Hopkins of 10 Mile, Yukon, who was the top Canadian finisher last year, coming in fifth, started again. The other Canadian-based racers are Brian Wilmshurst of Dawson City, Rob Cooke of Whitehorse, Gaetan Pierrard of Mendenhall, Yukon, Jason Campeau of Alberta, and Hank DeBruin of Ontario.

This year the top 15 official finishing positions will each receive a percentage of the $120,000 US purse.

Snow conditions seem good, but no guarantees

Yukon has seen some warm weather in recent weeks, but Quest officials say the trail is ready.

Canadian Ranger Sgt. John Mitchell, exercise co-ordinator of the four patrols of Canadian Rangers who break trail on the Canadian side, says there are some "trouble spots with open water" which the trail will detour. 

However, he says this year is "one of the best trails I've seen in the history of the Quest." 

Weather in Yukon is often warmer than Alaska, mushers will be out with their teams for more than a week on the 1,600 kilometre trail. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Natalie Haltrich, executive director of Yukon Quest Canada, says there's never a guarantee of smooth conditions in a race that extends 1,600 kilometres and lasts more than a week.

"There's going to be wind-blown mountaintops, there's going to be some areas where snow is low. There's going to be snowstorms where you have two feet [60 cm] of snow all of a sudden. That happened last year mid-race. Right now the trail is as good as it's been in any other year."

Veterinarians Chris McBear and Greta Krafsur perform a mandatory check of sled dogs at the Eagle, Alaska, checkpoint during the 2016 Yukon Quest. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

Mushers can use as many as 14 dogs at a time. They must finish the race with at least six dogs still running and are not allowed to replace dogs with others. 

Each checkpoint along the race has veterinarians who inspect the dogs' health. Some of the checkpoints along the way have mandatory rest hours. 

The Yukon Quest is joined by a shorter version called the Yukon Quest 300 which finishes in Pelly Crossing. 

with files from Cheryl Kawaja