FAIRBANKS — Rookie Tim Pappas led the pack as 26 mushers and 364 dogs began the 35th running of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race on Saturday behind the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks.

Despite chilly weather, with temps hovering around 20 below, hundreds of spectators lined the chute to see the teams start the 1,000-mile run to Whitehorse, Yukon.

The crowds packed the barricades and were two to three deep at some spots, while more onlookers stood on the Wendell Street Bridge to view the action from above. All of the teams traveled below the bridge and onto the Chena River, where they began their 73-mile journey to the Two Rivers checkpoint, near Mile 53.5 Chena Hot Springs Road. Hugh Neff was the first to reach the checkpoint shortly after 7 p.m.

Before the start, mushers and their handlers unloaded the dogs from trucks and campers and attached them to gang lines. Although some of the dogs barked when their mushers frantically paced their designated areas making last-minute preparations, the majority of dogs were quiet and calm, acting like confident athletes ready for the biggest game of their lives.

The mood around each team varied, though most mushers were happy to finally have the race get underway after months of preparing.

“I just want to get on the trail,” said Claudia Wickert, a rookie out of Whitehorse. “The dogs want to go. They’ve been in the box for five days now, so they’re ready to go.”

Wickert is one of 11 rookies in the field. As she made her final preparations, the 36-year-old pondered the many questions that weighed on her mind before her Yukon Quest debut.

“There are a lot of unkowns for me,” Wickert said. “How are they going to eat? Am I going to be able to keep the weight on them? Do I have the leaders to run 1,000 miles? What if the trail gets tough, what are they going to do?”

The rookies weren’t the only mushers who approached the starting line with butterflies buzzing around their bellies.

Defending champion Matt Hall, a 23-year-old from Two Rivers, admitted he was even a little nervous despite winning last year’s race — which started in Whitehorse and finished in Fairbanks — in 10 days, 1 hour and 7 minutes.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you do this, there are still some pre-race jitters,” Hall said. “Until we’re on the trail, it’s not perfect yet. It’s a little nerve-wracking but, so far, I can’t think of anything I’ve forgotten. So we should be ready to go.”

Regardless of the mushers’ experience, the dogs are the stars of the show.

Rookie Riley Dyche, from Darkhorse Racing Kennel in Fairbanks, said he wasn’t concerned because he trusts his group of dogs, which he described as a “super-young team.”

“I’m actually not that nervous. I’m mostly happy I’m done with all the preparing, that’s the hardest part,” Dyche said. “I’m pretty confident in my dogs. I’m going to rely on them more than anything because I’m definitely the weak link here.”

Although the competition will ramp up as teams make their way through the trail, which includes Alaska checkpoints in Two Rivers, Mile 101, Central, Circle City and Eagle before they cross over into Canada, Saturday’s start was all about celebrating the sport and the Yukon Quest.

Tok resident Hugh Neff, one of two mushers in the field with two Yukon Quest titles — Two Rivers’ Allen Moore being the other — said he’s ready to have a good time on the trail.

“I’m here to have fun more than anything,” he said. “Racing is racing, but it’s the Quest. It’s all just a big party.”

Neff did say he’ll be thinking about his wife, Olivia Shank Neff, the granddaughter of Leroy Shank, one of the masterminds behind the very first Quest.

Shank Neff will be one of 15 mushers competing in the Quest-organized YQ300, a 300-mile race that follows the same trail. It started at 3 p.m. and finishes in Circle City on Monday.

“This year’s a little bit different,” Neff said. “I got married last year after the Iditarod, so I’m nervous for my wife, who’s doing the 300. This is a new scene for her, so I’ll be thinking about her out there.”

Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.

FAIRBANKS — Rookie Tim Pappas led the pack as 26 mushers and 364 dogs began the 35th running of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race on Saturday behind the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks.

Despite chilly temperatures hovering around 20 below zero, hundreds of spectators lined the chute to see the teams start the 1,000-mile trek to Whitehorse, Yukon.

The crowds packed the barricades and were two to three deep at some spots, while more onlookers stood on the Wendell Street Bridge to view the action from above. All of the teams traveled below the bridge and onto the Chena River, where they began their 73-mile journey to the Two Rivers checkpoint, which is located around Mile 53.5 Chena Hot Springs Road.

Before the start, mushers and their handlers unloaded the dogs from trucks and campers and attached them to gang lines. Although some of the dogs barked when their mushers frantically paced their designated areas making last-minute preparations, the majority of dogs were quiet and calm, acting like confident athletes ready for the biggest game of their life.

The mood around each team varied, though most mushers were happy to finally have the race get underway after months of preparing.

"I just want to get on the trail," said Claudia Wickert, a rookie out of Whitehorse. "The dogs want to go. They've been in the box for five days now, so they're ready to go."

Wickert is one of 11 rookies in the field. As she made her final preparations, the 36-year-old pondered the many questions that were weighing on her mind before her Yukon Quest debut.

"There are a lot of unkowns for me," Wickert said. "How are they going to eat? Am I going to be able to keep the weight on them? Do I have the leaders to run 1,000 miles? What if the trail gets tough, what are they going to do?"

The rookies weren't the only mushers who approached the starting line with butterflies buzzing around their bellies.

Defending champion Matt Hall, a 23-year-old from Two Rivers, admitted he was even a little nervous despite winning last year's race — which started in Whitehorse and finished in Fairbanks — in 10 days, 1 hour and 7 minutes.

"It doesn't matter how many times you do this, there are still some pre-race jitters," Hall said. "Until we're on the trail, it's not perfect yet. It's a little nerve-wracking but, so far, I can't think of anything I've forgotten. So we should be ready to go."

Regardless of the mushers' experience, the dogs are the stars of the show.

Rookie Riley Dyche, from Darkhorse Racing Kennel in Fairbanks, said he wasn't concerned because he trusts his group of dogs, which he described as a "super-young team."

"I'm actually not that nervous. I'm mostly happy I'm done with all the preparing, that's the hardest part," Dyche said. "I'm pretty confident in my dogs. I'm going to rely on them more than anything because I'm definitely the weak link here."

Although the competition will ramp up as teams make their way through the trail, which includes Alaska checkpoints in Two Rivers, Mile 101, Central, Circle City and Eagle before they cross over into Canada, Saturday's start was all about celebrating the sport and the Yukon Quest.

Tok resident Hugh Neff, one of two mushers in the field with two Yukon Quest titles — Two Rivers' Allen Moore being the other — said he's ready to have a good time on the trail.

"I'm here to have fun more than anything," he said. "Racing is racing, but it's the Quest. It's all just a big party."

Neff did say he'll be thinking about his wife, Olivia Shank Neff, the granddaughter of Leroy Shank, one of the masterminds behind the very first Quest.

Shank Neff will be one of 15 mushers competing in the Quest-organized YQ300, a 300-mile race that follows the same trail. It started at 3 p.m. and finishes in Circle City on Monday.

"This year's a little bit different," Neff said. "I got married last year after the Iditarod, so I'm nervous for my wife, who's doing the 300. This is a new scene for her, so I'll be thinking about her out there."

Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.