FAIRBANKS — The latest chapter of the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race came to a close Saturday evening, when the race held its finish and awards banquet at the Westmark Gold Room in downtown Fairbanks.
Each of the 27 mushers who finished this year’s race shared personal stories, while race officials, veterinarians, trail breakers and other Quest volunteers did the same.
It was a jovial night, one that included standing ovations and roars of laughter.
“It was amazing to see all the people smile and laugh when we were crossing everywhere on the trail,” said Quest rookie Hendrik Stachnau, who earned the Red Lantern Award, given to the last musher to finish.
“I’m happy that I could finish. I had a wonderful time and a wonderful journey. I’ll never forget it.”
While Stachnau shared his overall thoughts on his first Quest experience, other mushers shared more intimate, personal stories from the trail.
“I had one beer in Central,” Quest rookie Deke Naaktgeboren said. “I went to bed with Andy (Pace), but then I woke up with Jim (Lanier).”
Lanier drew one of the loudest ovations of the night when he went up to speak. Before the mushers began sharing their tales from the trail, a race official confirmed that Lanier, a 78-year-old rookie from Chugiak, was the oldest musher to ever finish the 1,000-mile race.
After finishing 24th, Lanier continued to inspire the crowd Saturday when he took the stage.
“Some people say I’m an inspiration,” he said. “I don’t know to what extent that is true, but don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old. Especially don’t let yourself tell yourself you’re too old.”
Lanier, a longtime Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran, then gave the crowd a special treat. The former opera singer has developed a reputation for singing about his experiences on the trail at Iditarod banquets, and he followed suit for the Quest crowd.
The rookie sang a version of “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” which was composed by Mitch Leigh and appeared in the 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha.” That brought some more energy into the room, which had given Lanier a standing ovation as he made his way to the stage.
This year’s champion, Brent Sass, was the final musher to speak. He said he had the time of his life on the trail, adding, “We all talk about that magic carpet ride, and I had it this year.”
As much as the banquet is about the mushers sharing their stories, it’s also about acknowledging their performances throughout the race.
Sass received the Veterinarian’s Choice Award after finishing with 14 dogs, the most a team can compete with. He also received the Joe Fellers Dawson Award, given to the first musher into the Dawson City checkpoint that goes on to finish the race.
As a part of the Dawson award, Sass will get to keep a poke of gold, which includes 2 ounces of gold and is worth about $2,651 today.
Sass’ lead dogs, Jeep and Sluice, received the Golden Harness Award given to the leaders of the championship team.
Other awards included the Rookie of the Year, which is given to the first rookie who crosses the finish line. This year’s Rookie of the Year was Martin Apayauq Reitan, a 21-year-old from Kaktovik who finished 14th.
Quest veteran Rob Cooke received the Sportsmanship Award given to the musher who demonstrates outstanding sportsmanship along the trail. The award is voted on by the Quest mushers.
Remy Leduc, a 34-year-old Quest rookie, won the Challenge of the North Award, which is given to the musher who best exemplifies the spirit of the Quest.
One of the first people to speak was Aliy Zirkle, who won the Quest-organized YQ300, which is typically a 300-mile race but was shortened to 200 miles this year because of poor trail conditions near the start line in Whitehorse.
Zirkle used her time on stage to commend the Quest’s team of veterinarians for doing a fantastic job.
“Most mushers realize there would be no Yukon Quest without the vet crew,” said Zirkle, who won the 1,000-mile race in 2000. “The truth is the care of our dogs is constant, and the Yukon Quest vets make it happen.”
Although Saturday officially marked the end of another Quest, veteran musher Brian Wilmshurst was already thinking about getting back on the trail.
“I wish the Yukon Quest was a million miles, so I could always be on the trail,” he said.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates about the Yukon Quest.