Despite all the COVID-19 disruptions faced by the Yukon Quest — primarily cancellation of the 1,000 mile international race, in lieu of an Alaska-only Summit Quest 300 — some things never change. Specifically, raw enthusiasm from mushers, their dogs and the fans.

Excited participants and spectators were treated to a gorgeous, crisp, bluebird start of the race Saturday morning at Pleasant Valley Store in Two Rivers.

Several hundred people showed up to watch the start, with moderate degrees of face masking and social distancing.

High-pitched yelping and howling rang in spectators’ ears. Dogs eager to start tugged on their harnesses, others calmly basked in the sun.

Racers are competing for a share of the $13,500 purse, with the top five finishers in the money.

Even with cash on the line, the game plan for many mushers is slow and steady.

Some of the slow approach will be mandatory, as teams are required to take 22 hours of cumulative rest at checkpoints, more than in years past.

Rookie Kai Leddy from Talkeetna isn’t in a hurry on her second-ever mid-distance race, the first being the Willow 300 Sled Dog Race just last weekend.

“We’re a puppy team … it’s their second race ever, so we’re gonna break up the big runs, take it easy,” she said.

Even if a musher wants to go easy, it doesn’t mean the dogs agree, “In the Willow I held the drag mat for 300 miles straight, they charge pretty good,” Leddy chuckled.

Fellow rookie Phillip Hanke of Interior Alaska knows he may be in the back of the pack, “but you need to finish the race, and you need to stick with it.”

Recounting a story from the recent Copper Basin 300, in which Hanke scratched, he had the opposite problem of Leddy’s team — his dogs wanting to bed down at sunrise after a night run.

“When the sun rises, the dogs want to bed down because they’re warm, they’re cozy. That was the first time I’ve ever seen it happen, they just slow down right away.”

Thinking to himself that he was due for a rest break in an hour anyway, Hanke bedded his team down. But later, more experienced mushers advised him to make his team work a little harder.

“You just need to be that person to encourage them to keep going. If they want to bed down on Birch Creek, you don’t want to be stuck on Birch Creek longer than you have to be,” they told Hanke.

Even some of the veterans plan to take an incremental approach, including a two-time champion of the 1,000 Mile Yukon Quest, Hugh Neff of Fairbanks.

“I’m just focused on making it through here safely,” Neff said.

Neff last ran the Quest in 2018, a year that did not go well.

Early on while climbing Rosebud Summit, Neff continually got turned around. While Neff struggled with a tangled team, friend and fellow racer Jason Campeau stopped to help. Campeau fell, overturned his sled and received a serious concussion.

“Rosebud to me is much more intimidating than Eagle Summit,” Neff said.

Campeau continued racing hundreds more miles, but his condition declined, and he eventually needed helicopter evacuation.

Neff’s race also ended abruptly when one of his dogs died, resulting in disqualification and censorship, meaning he was banned from Quest races for one year. The Quest also required him to requalify by running a 300 mile race.

Neff unsuccessfully disputed the punishment, and spent the 2020 race supporting his wife, Olivia Webster Shank-Neff, with her own 1,000 Mile Yukon Quest, during which the rookie was awarded the ceremonial red lantern for being the final finisher.

“The thing about the Quest is you can’t be competitive, you gotta deal with the trail,” Neff said.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday, Neff was one of the first mushers to leave the Two Rivers checkpoint. Veteran Jodi Bailey of Chatanika was also out.

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