FAIRBANKS — The Yukon Quest Rookie of the Year award is headed back to Kaktovik.
Martin Apayauq Reitan captured the award Wednesday evening, when he became the first rookie to finish the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race. His performance came one year after his older brother, Vebjorn Aishana, took fourth and was the first rookie finisher in last year’s race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon.
The 21-year-old waved to a small, yet energetic crowd as he rode his team of 11 dogs down the Chena River near Nordale Road.
When Reitan and his squad turned the bend and approached the makeshift finish chute, which was relocated from downtown Fairbanks earlier in the day because of overflow and wind-blown snow on the Chena River, he was surprised to discover he had just finished his first 1,000-mile race.
“I heard it was a changed finish (line), but I don’t know the name of the bridges and stuff,” Reitan said, alluding to the Nordale Road Bridge located near the new finish line. “When I saw all the people, I figured this was the finish.”
Reitan finished 14th overall after crossing the finish line at about 4:55 p.m. Wednesday. He said the fact he won Rookie of the Year, which goes to the first rookie to finish, hadn’t really sunk in yet, particularly because his focus had been on leading his team the best he could.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much,” he said of the honor. “I was just trying to run as good as I could. I’m pretty happy. I had a good time.”
It wasn’t all good times for the rookie, however. Reitan said he had a particularly challenging time climbing over Rosebud Summit, a 3,640-foot peak, which is the final summit teams encounter before reaching the Two Rivers checkpoint, the last stop on the trail.
Reitan said his climb included 50 mph winds and blurred vision as the gusts whipped snow around the top of the summit. He had to walk in front of his team to clear a path and confirm he was following the trail, leaving his dogs behind for some additional rest.
“It was really hard up there,” he said of the climb. “It was the first time I ever had to stop during a storm. Every time I’ve gone through a storm, I’ve just been able to continue. But the dogs were really sick and tired of 50 mph wind to the face, especially in an uphill.”
During that climb over Rosebud, which Reitan said will likely be his most memorable stretch of the trail, the rookie said he ditched his oversized purple parka that he crossed the finish line in.
“I was walking around and running around, and I wasn’t even wearing my parka,” he said. “I was sweaty.”
As for regrets? The rookie, who is set to make his Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race debut next month, said he caught up on a little more rest than he would’ve liked to at the checkpoints and hospitality stops along the trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.
“I slept too much at some of the checkpoints,” Reitan said. “I heard at, I think it was Scroggie Creek, they woke me up three times and I don’t remember it. I was completely out of it.”
Mushing is a big part of Reitan’s family, which lives, and runs a polar bear tour company, in Kaktovik, a city in the North Slope. Although his family views running sled dogs as a mode of transportation first and foremost, the 21-year-old was delighted to complete his first 1,000-mile race.
He said it somewhat reminded him of the journey he and his father, Ketil, had after the 2017 Iditarod. Ketil ran a team in the race, then he his youngest son ran from the finish line back to Kaktovik, making a pit-stop in Kotzebue so Martin Apayauq could run in the Kobuk 440, a 440-mile race.
“It kind of felt like that, but faster and with other mushers,” Reitan said of his first Quest appearance.
Reitan might have been the first musher to reach the relocated finish line, but he wasn’t the only one to finish Wednesday.
Quest veteran Cody Strathe, of Ester, finished around 3 a.m., while another veteran, Brian Wilmshurst, of Dawson City, reached Fairbanks around 9 a.m.
Dave Dalton, of Healy, was less than 10 miles from the Nordale Road finish line, which is about 15 miles less of trail than the original one located behind the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, at press time.
He was followed by a group of four — Curt Perano, Jason Biasetti, Rob Cooke and Deke Naaktgeboren — who were resting at the Two Rivers checkpoint at press time.
Teams must spend an eight-hour layover at Two Rivers, which is located about 30 miles from the small community of the same name and 55 miles from the changed finish line.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates about the Yukon Quest.