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Perfect Conditions Prevail as Mushers Begin the Yukon Quest

Lex Treinen
Quest 300 musher Jennifer LaBar guides her team down the trail durrng day one.

Lex Treinen, KUAC

(Two Rivers, Ak.) Temperatures hovered just above zero degrees and the clouds finally cleared in Fairbanks for the start of the Yukon Quest on Saturday morning as nine teams lined up for both the 550 and 350 mile Yukon Quest competitions.

As he laid out his gang line on the snow in the parking lot of the Morris Thompson Visitor Center in downtown Fairbanks, Quest 550 musher Wade Marrs of Wisconsin said the temperatures were ideal for his dogs.

“Perfect,” he said. “Their favorite temperature is between zero and twenty below.”

Mushers said the layer of fresh, powdery snow would slow them down a little, but that was a good thing at the start of a long race, when dogs have tons of energy and can hurt themselves or just run out of steam.

“It keeps the dogs a little more cushiony, cause you don’t want to go too fast stomping out the chute here,” said 550 musher Lauro Eklund.

Lex Treinen
Quest 550 musher Brent Sass shares a moment with his lead dogs before the start.

Mushers focused on last-minute packing and fueling. Several mushers, like 300-rookie Ashley Dove mentioned coffee and breakfast burritos as a go-to race morning meal to prepare herself for the rigors of the trail.

“Gotta go heavy on the carbs,” she said with a laugh.

A few mushers admitted they’d stopped for calorie-heavy fast food before arriving at the start line.

“I had Wendy’s. A coffee and a sandwich,” said 300 musher Ron Stiffler.

Keaton Loebrich, also racing the 300, said he didn’t eat anything.

“I was in the Marines for four years, you kind of get used to it,” he said. “Your body goes into field mode, that’s what I call it.”

Like Loebrich, 550 musher Deke Naaktgeboren says he also faced a sort of self-imposed challenge: procrastination.

“My handlers got over at 7:30 and I’m like ‘sorry guys, I’m a little behind, as always,” he said.

He did manage to get to the start line on time for his start, unlike Jeff Reid, whose team was supposed to be the first team out on the 300. He said he was supposed to catch a ride to the start line behind a snow machine, but there was some confusion with the driver.

Lex Treinen
Quest 550 musher Nic Petit resting at Two Rivers.

“He was waiting for the thumbs up from his -- whoever he was supposed to get a thumbs up from. I was like ‘ I need to be there now.’ He ended up taking us there but we got there with like 15 seconds,” said Reid.

Reid ultimately had to wait until after the last 300 teams left before he was allowed down the trail, costing him about 25 minutes off his trail time. Missing his start wasn’t the only place Reid lost some time. After pulling into the first checkpoint at Pleasant Valley Community Center around 4 o’clock he said a couple of his dogs sank into some deep overflow on the Chena.

He pulled out a dog jacket caked in thick, white ice from frozen overflow.

“It went all the way up to their armpits, so I’d say that’s two-and-a-half, three feet,” he said of the depth of the overflow.

At Pleasant Valley, most mushers took a rest, taking advantage of the amenities of the community center to feed their dogs. But they had a lot to think about. Up next was an arduous 80-mile run over Rosebud Summit through the night.

Riley Dyche was taking advantage of the fading daylight to change out his plastic sled runners for some faster, more maneuverable ones. He hoped they’d help him guide his team up and down the slopes of Rosebud. He was also dealing with consequences of overflow on the first section of trail, pounding on his aluminum sled runners.

Lex Treinen
Quest 550 musher Riley Dyche works on his sled at Two Rivers

“The biggest use I have for my race axe, the mandatory gear, is getting ice off my sled,” he said.

After changing his socks, sitting on his sled smoking a cigarette and sipping coffee, 550 musher and Quest rookie Nic Petit said he had a little strategy for tackling the next section of trail.

“I’m gonna look for Brent’s trail,” said Petit, referring to four-time Quest winner Brent Sass “He should know the place.”

Sass blew right through the Pleasant Valley checkpoint to camp out on trail.

Though some mushers were nervous about the upcoming peaks, many were just excited for the run under the full moon. Keaton Loebrich again.

“One of my favorite things, period, let alone mushing, is to run without a headlamp at night. There’s something almost spiritual about it,” he said.