Eighteen teams of mushers and sled dogs are headed to the start line of the 2021 Summit Quest 300 following vet checks and bib draw on Friday.

Veteran Jodi Bailey of Chatanika will be the first musher out of the start gate today at 11 a.m., leaving from Pleasant Valley Store at Mile 23 Chena Hot Springs Road.

The Summit Quest fills a void left by the cancellation of the 1,000 Mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race due to COVID-19.

Race organizers in Canada opted not to hold any Quest-themed race this year, citing, in part, a race course that travels through 10 local communities, many being First Nations communities. In contrast, the Summit Quest will travel through three communities.

Veterinarians gave mushers the final go-ahead on Friday after each dog received a thorough exam. Trucks and trailers cycled through the parking lot at La Quinta Inn & Suits as the sun rose on a crisp and clear winter day.

One vet asked a musher if he had any concerns, “just about myself,” he replied with a chuckle.

While the race will have a substantially different feel this year, one thing won’t — scrutinizing the health of the dogs, including a mandatory vet check for all dogs at Central Checkpoint, and ancillary inspections throughout.

“We’re doing the same thing we always do. We’re looking at their body condition, how much muscle do they have and how much fat do they have,” head vet Nina Hansen said.

Vets also assess hydration, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, heart, lungs, abdomen and paws. “We’re out there all the time,” Hansen said, adding that with a smaller field of mushers, vets might get a little more rest than in normal years.

Getting her first taste of life the trail is volunteer veterinarian Margret Lenfest. “My job on the trail is to help the mushers keep their dogs as happy and healthy as they can,” she said.

Lenfest is completing a residency in canine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Cornell University in New York, a field of study that works in tandem with neurology, surgery and internal medicine, she said.

For Lenfest, the Quest is all about experience, “Putting hands on these dogs and seeing how they change over 300 miles is going to be enormously beneficial for me. Any time you get to watch dogs work like this you learn.”

When it comes to assessing health of the dogs, vets will look to the mushers who work with them day-in and day-out, “There’s no way for us to get to know them as individuals, so we rely on those mushers to say ‘Hey, something’s up with Fido,’” Hansen said.

Lenfest got the chance to hop on a sled with a musher not racing in the Summit Quest, which she described as an “indescribably wonderful” experience.

“Coming here, seeing mostly normal dogs doing an incredible athletic feat … You can’t even begin to describe how wonderful these dogs are,” she said.

Contact Robin Wood at medianorthak@gmail.com