WHITEHORSE, Yukon — The vast majority of sled dog racing fans rarely have the opportunity to meet their favorite competitors.
Sure, Yukon Quest enthusiasts are able to catch a glimpse of the teams as they leave the start line or pull across the finish line, and some even make the trek to the remote checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail. But fans of the sport almost never have the chance to get up close and personal with the mushers.
They were given that opportunity Wednesday night, when the Quest hosted its Meet the Mushers event at Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon, just a couple miles away from where the 36th running of the Quest will begin Saturday morning.
“This is the first year I’ve met the mushers, and I’ve been following the Quest since I was 8,” said Jessica McMurphy, a Whitehorse native and longtime fan of the race. “I wanted to meet all the rookies. I asked some of them questions and I wished all of them luck, because I know just how hard the trail can be.”
McMurphy was among a large crowd of a couple hundred fans who packed the room, eager to spend a few moments talking about the race with the mushers. She was carrying a sweatshirt peppered with autographs from the mushers, while many other fans sought signatures on this year’s official race poster, which features a painting of a sled dog team traveling over a wavelike mountaintop.
While the event is designed to give the fans an opportunity to snap a photo with the mushers or to wish them well during a brief exchange, the mushers are also delighted to connect with the people they hardly ever get to see away from the trail.
“There are people who show up here that said they’ve seen me on my website or my Facebook page, and I’ve never met them before, so it’s pretty cool to know there are so many fans who say they follow me and I don’t even know about them,” said Nathaniel Hamlyn, a Quest veteran from Whitehorse. “It’s nice to put a face to those people.”
Hamlyn caught the attention of those who followed last year’s Quest when he took the Red Lantern as a rookie. The 24-year-old finished the 2018 race with seven dogs, an improbable feat considering all that he faced on the trail. After leaving the start line in Fairbanks with 12 dogs, Hamlyn was forced to drop four at the second checkpoint — Mile 101 Steese Highway — after they sustained shoulder injuries coming down Rosebud Summit, a 3,640-foot peak after the Two Rivers checkpoint.
Many in attendance Wednesday were surprised to see Hamlyn back in this year’s field, but he said he was excited to take part in the race for a second time.
“People that remember me from last year are asking why I’m back, because I know I told a lot of people that I’d never be back,” Hamlyn said. “I looked at the races I could do and just thought that nothing would add up to the Quest. It’s an amazing event and if I did anything else, I’d probably want more.”
Other mushers, such as Michelle Phillips, from 10 Mile, Yukon, are experiencing the frenzy for the first time in a long time. Phillips, who has posted top-10 finishes in each of the five Quests she has completed, said she was excited to be back mingling with sled dog lovers before her first appearance in the race since 2009.
“It’s awesome to see that there are so many fans out there and they’re enjoying the night,” she said. “I’m looking forward to revisiting the Yukon Quest trail and meeting all the friends at the checkpoints.”
There are 12 rookies in this year’s field of 30 teams, and many of them were wide-eyed as the long line of fans snaked through the room. Among the rookies eager to meet the Quest supporters was Jimmy Lebling, a Tok resident who joked about rarely interacting with fans while wearing street clothes.
“It’s really neat to see these people. It’s the first time I’ve had clean clothes on in front of them,” he said. “This is a great event. The whole Quest is. I’ve always wanted to do it and the opportunity came up, so here I am. It’s a dream come true.”
This year’s Quest starts at 10 a.m. AKST at Shipyards Park in downtown Whitehorse. A separate Meet the Mushers event will take place Feb. 15 at La Quinta Inns and Suites in Fairbanks after the conclusion of the race.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him for updates from the Yukon Quest trail on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.