WHITEHORSE, Yukon — Twenty-six mushers began the Yukon Quest under sunny skies and balmy temperatures Saturday, ideal conditions for hundreds of local fans if not the competitors in the race.
The 30th running of the 1,000-mile Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks race attracted throngs of spectators, who watched Dawson musher Brian Wilmshurst kick off the race after drawing the No. 1 bib.
Fans lined the starting chute and applauded each team as it sped out of the gate. A few hundred more were waiting down the road at the Takhini River Bridge, where musher Hugh Neff, of Tok, arrived first to cheers about 90 minutes after the race start.
Temperatures in the 20s had mushers predicting a slow-moving race until it cools down, with more rest stops and water breaks needed for the hard-working dogs.
“It is extremely warm,” four-time Quest champion Lance Mackey said. “For me, it’s perfect, but I’m kind of a wimp. For my boys, it’s going to be kind of slow at the beginning.”
Mushers said the weather was well above optimal conditions for dogs on a long run.
“Fifteen-below is ideal. Zero is OK. Twenty above is hot,” Fairbanks musher Cody Strathe said.
The warm temperatures didn’t hurt the mood among mushers or dogs at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse. The teams started to come to life about a half-hour before the start, with barks and yips filling the area.
Neff, who won the 2012 Quest, wore a yellow-and-blue striped top hat down the chute, raising his hands for the crowd and bobbing up and down on his sled runners. He said he was so excited to start that he beat the rest of the field into the makeshift dog lot Saturday morning.
“I can’t believe I was the first musher here,” he said. “That’s a first.”
Strathe didn’t show any nerves before his rookie run, chatting with visitors to the dog yard and posing for photos. He even said he’d gotten a good night’s sleep before the race.
“Last night, I had a taco dinner and a glass of wine, and now I’m ready,” Strathe said with a smile.
Last year’s top rookie, Jake Berkowitz, of Big Lake, said his second run has been less hectic. Because the race starts in Whitehorse this year, he’s been packed and ready to go for about a week.
“As much as you can know what you’re getting into, we’re getting into it,” he said.
A few mushers said their teams might get a boost by the warmer temperatures.
Chatanika musher Dan Kaduce said his team has some recent experience in the heat after completing in a slushy Copper Basin 300 last month.
Darrin Lee, of Chistochina, scooped extra doses of a thin soup for his dogs before the race. With a few extra water breaks they’d be fine, he figured, especially since two of his dogs, Scooter and Fozzie, have particularly thin coats.
“It’s warm, but I don’t think it’s too warm for them,” he said. “I don’t know if they could go the whole Quest if it was a 30- or 40-below. They like it warm.”
Follow staff writer Jeff Richardson on Twitter: @FDNMquest.