WHITEHORSE, Yukon – The nerves, anticipation and excitement cut through the air long before the sun began its morning stretch over Shipyards Park here early Saturday.
After months of preparation, the wait was finally over for the 30 mushers entered in the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race.
Denis Tremblay was the first musher to leave the start line at Shipyards Park, as he followed his team through a sea of spectators that braved minus-30 temperatures to catch a glimpse of the sled dog race that bills itself as the toughest in the world.
Although the cold chilled everybody in attendance, many weren’t surprised to see Mother Nature decided to be a merciless participant for the start of the 36th running of the race to Fairbanks.
“It’s the Quest. It’s always like this, isn’t it?” joked Curt Perano, a Quest veteran from New Zealand who drew bib No. 29. “This is warm!”
Tremblay, a 44-year-old veteran from Quebec, Canada, pumped his fist in the air as he left the start line at 10 a.m. Alaska time. He led a field that consists of 12 rookies and 18 veterans, includes four past champions and mushers from six countries.
Hans Gatt, the only four-time Quest champion in this year’s race, was second to leave. The 60-year-old from Whitehorse received a loud ovation as his team departed the start line, marking Gatt’s first appearance in the 1,000-mile trek since 2011.
Gatt wasn’t the only musher to return to the Quest. Brent Sass, the 2015 champion who owns and operates Wild and Free Mushing in Eureka, Alaska, also is back after skipping last year’s race.
Sass’ team was third to leave, followed by New Brunswick-based rookie Remy Leduc and Torsten Kohnert, a veteran from Slussfors, Sweden, rounding out the first five to depart for Braeburn, the first checkpoint located about 100 miles from the start.
Perano was another musher who returned to the Quest after an absence. The 46-year-old from New Zealand stepped away from the sport for a few years after finishing seventh during his rookie race in 2014.
“It’s been about four or five years since I last ran the Quest, so I’m excited to be back,” he said. “I got a young bunch of dogs, so I’m really keen to see these guys on the trail.”
He wasn’t the only person who traveled to Whitehorse from Down Under, however; Jarryd and Alesha Salem – a married couple from Sydney, Australia – also made the journey to witness the spectacle in person.
“It’s been a bit of a shock to the system,” Jarryd Salem said. “When we left Australia it was plus 38, then we wake up this morning and it was minus 36, so that was definitely a shock. But to see everybody get out here and make the best of the cold weather and the camaraderie and spirit behind it is really cool to see.”
The Salems said they scheduled a four-day sled dog expedition in the Yukon before heading north to Dawson City – the final checkpoint on the Canada side – for another serving of the Quest.
“This is our first time seeing sled dog racing,” Jarryd said. “What a way to break the seal with our first Yukon Quest. We’re really excited to be seeing this.”
Although the spectators admitted the frigid temperatures were taking a toll, some mushers appeared right at home. Rookie Martin Apayauq Reitan, from Kaktovik, Alaska, didn’t even put on a parka as he made preparations in the dog yard before the race.
“I was planning on 40 below,” said the 21-year-old Reitan, the youngest musher in this year’s field. “You can’t go on the Yukon Quest and not plan for 40 below. I have more clothes that I can put on, but I don’t want to put them on because I know it’s going to get colder.”
The name Reitan might seem familiar to those with knowledge of Alaska’s extensive mushing history. His father, Ketil, is a longtime Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran who also finished the 1989 Quest. Reitan’s older brother, Vebjorn, captured last year’s Rookie of the Year award after finishing fourth in last year's Quest.
Before making his own Quest debut, the youngest of the Reitan men admitted Vebjorn’s stellar performance might bring him some added attention on the trail.
“It’s a bit of pressure, you know?” he said. “He got fourth place, which is a great placement. But there’s more teams this year. I might run a better time and have a worse placement, you never know. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it in about the same time.”
Regardless of the expectations mushers have placed on their teams, they all seemed delighted to leave the pre-race preparations in Whitehorse.
“The biggest relief is finally reaching the start line,” said Ryne Olson, a Two Rivers musher who made her third Quest start. “The biggest headache of the whole thing is the logistics before the race, so I’m happy to put that behind me and get out on the trail.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.