DAWSON CITY, Yukon — It’s impossible to count how many times the word “family” has been used to describe the traveling circus that follows the Yukon Quest during the 1,000-mile sled dog race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon.
Few sports require competitors to go through so many hardships like the mushers and their teams do during the Quest. Because of the bond mushers share with one another, it’s difficult for them to not worry about and care for one another.
Rookie Vebjorn Aishana Reitan is new to the Quest, but he’s quickly learned the other mushers — particularly the veterans — are more like allies than actual competitors.
After checking on his dogs, which were lying down for rest at a makeshift camp in the Dawson City dog yard, Reitan spoke about the veterans who have helped make his first Quest an easier undertaking than it could have been.
“Matt Hall and Hugh Neff have really been helping me out,” Reitan said from the edge of his team’s camp, which was located near Hall’s. “It’s amazing how much they can help me. Even though we’re competitors and racing against each other, it’s really helpful to have them help me.”
Reitan, 21, grew up around mushing from a young age. His father, Ketil, is a well-respected distance musher and an Iditarod veteran, and he taught his son how to run dogs at the family’s Hulahula Kennel in Kaktovik, a small village on the northern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Although Reitan entered the Quest with some mushing experience — he finished seventh at this year’s Copper Basin 300 and the 2016 Two Rivers 200, as well as eighth at the 2014 Femundlopet Junior — this is the first 1,000-mile race he has attempted.
As the youngest rookie in the field, Reitan naturally turned to his father for strategic advice. But he also knew it would be beneficial to seek advice from other experienced mushers who have finished long-distance races.
“Before the race, I talked with a bunch of mushers and asked them what the trail was like, some general questions,” Reitan said, appearing well rested and comfortable in his white jumpsuit parka complete with a massive, fur-lined hood.
Among the mushers he reached out to was Hall, last year’s Quest champion. Reitan said Hall, from Smokin’ Ace Kennels in Two Rivers, spent an hour going over the trail map and offering advice.
Hall was happy to help.
“The mushing world is a big family,” Hall said as his handlers took turns taking each dog for an individual walk around the dog yard. “Especially the Quest, there’s only 26 teams in the race. We need to look out for each other. If we can lend each other a hand or give some help, absolutely, why not? I’m not afraid to share anything or give some help if I can.”
Reitan handled the attention he received at the dog yard like a seasoned pro. After being the first rookie — and fifth musher overall — to reach Dawson City, the first checkpoint on the Canada side, Reitan was delighted to answer questions about himself and the race. He showed off the Swedish knife he hangs on the sash around his waist, a homemade creation consisting of plastic and leather from multiple knives he has owned over the years.
His demeanor was an indicator that he is happy to be among the leaders, a reality that he said wouldn’t be possible without the help of others, including Hall.
“It’s beyond words how much that helps me out,” Reitan said. “Being able to visualize what the trail is going to be like and knowing where I should camp and whatnot really helps me out. It makes it so I can relax a little bit more. I know what’s going to happen so I can mentally prepare and know what to do when I get there.”
Reitan pulled out of Dawson City for Pelly Crossing — the next checkpoint on the way to Whitehorse — at 9:15 p.m. AST Friday night at the expiration of his 36-hour rest that all Yukon Quest mushers are required to take at the checkpoint.
Through the first 500 miles of the race, Reitan said he’s encountered problems that he didn’t necessarily expect to have. One has been the low temperatures, which were often colder than 40 below zero.
They have made him adjust his plans on more than one occasion.
“My dad and I made a plan and I’m trying to stick with it,” he said. “But it’s hard because getting ready at the checkpoints has been taking me two hours when it usually takes one. I have to stop every now and then to warm up and reheat my hands.”
He’s also made additional stops on the trail to check his dogs, many of which have completed Iditarods and Quests for his father and for Quest competitor Torsten Kohnert, two mushers Reitan has handled for in the past.
“I have a few dogs that are more susceptible to frostbite, so I’m checking them and applying paste to their exposed parts if they have previous frostbites,” Reitan said. “I’m checking that at every stop, making sure everything that is ready to go in the cold and wind.”
Hall said they have crossed paths on the trail, and he can tell the rookie and his team are thriving.
“He’s got an amazing dog team,” Hall said. “I’ve actually seen him at basically every single stop I’ve taken on this race. He has been getting there right as I’ve been booting up the past few stops. I see his team come in and they look awesome.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.