The draw determining the starting order of the 33rd Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race got off to a boisterous start Thursday night at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Fairbanks.
“Yukon Quest, let’s do this!” was the battle cry from veteran musher Cody Strathe of Ester, Alaska after he drew bib number 14 from the official Start Draw bunny boot. He also thanked his Quest “family,” and instructed everyone to be sure to wish his wife and competitor, Paige Drobny (who will start fifth), a happy birthday tomorrow.
Second to draw was Mendenhall, Yukon’s Gaetan Pierrard. After pulling the number seven bib he was brief with his “thank yous” because, as he wryly put it, he will have a lot more people to thank when he gets to Whitehorse.
Briton Rob Cooke drew bib 20 with the third pick and after thanking Quest officials, all the volunteers, and his wife Louise, joked that his freshman handlers would be easy to spot because they will be the “two young British guys who are going to look very lost.”
The fourth pick from the bunny boot went to Mike Ellis of Fox, Alaska who will be wearing the number two bib this year. In his remarks from the stage afterward, Ellis initiated what would become a common refrain over the course of the evening. Veterinarians, volunteers, race officials, handlers, spouses, and sponsors received high praise from all 23 mushers of the 2016 Yukon Quest, but in the end it always came back to the lifestyle and the dogs.
After shout outs to his “bazillion fans” on Facebook, defending champion Brent Sass, who will start the race in the ninth position, made it clear another title isn’t his only aim this year. “I’m going after that Vet’s Choice award again because it’s all about the dogs,” he declared. Ending on an emotional note, Sass said he is dedicating his run this year to his beloved and decorated former lead dog Basin. “He’ll be with us all the way this year. The entire team is going to rally around him.”
The dubious honour of bib number 23 belongs to Sébastien Dos Santos Borges of France, who may not have been the most loquacious when it came time to speak, but found voice enough to honour his team. His sole remark when handed the microphone was an impassioned “Thanks only to my dogs and especially to my dogs.”
Before revealing his bib number to the crowd, Finishers Club member Dave Dalton challenged the mayors of Fairbanks and the North Star Borough, who were seated in the audience, to add “Home of the Yukon Quest” to the Welcome to Fairbanks sign for the 2017 Quest. Dalton, described by past champion Hugh Neff as “the cog that keeps the machine running,” will start this year’s in the number eight position.
Norwegian competitor Tore Albrishten, who will don the number 11 bib, has modest goals for his inaugural Quest run, saying he just wants to do well enough to be able to afford to get home afterward.
Allen Moore drew both the fourth starting position and probably the biggest laughs of the evening with a story about his well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempts at translation services for fellow mushers Yuka Honda of Japan and the aforementioned Albrishten. Turning his attention to his Quest Guest rider for the first mile of Saturday’s start, Moore devilishly vowed to give them “a thrilling ride.”
Competing in his 16th Yukon Quest, Hugh Neff advised this year’s nine rookies to take in every facet of their first Quest so they can savour it, as he does, in later years. He also took time to honour the people that live along the Quest trail, some of whom were lost this year, calling them the heart and soul of “the world’s great race.” His 10,000 miler lead dogs George and Amigo guiding the way, Neff will wear bib number 22.
The last word went to rookie Tony Angelo, who drew lucky 13. A military veteran with 34 years of service who had intended to retire into a more normal life, Angelo’s message to the crowd spoke to the elemental love and commitment all the Quest mushers and their teams have to the event and the lifestyle: “We’d still do it if you weren’t here, but with you we have way more fun.”
The full list of mushers and their bib numbers is as follows:
- Laura Neese
- Mike Ellis
- Ed Hopkins
- Allen Moore
- Paige Drobny
- Yuka Honda
- Gaetan Pierrard
- Dave Dalton
- Brent Sass
- Hank DeBruin
- Tore Albrishten
- Torsten Kohnert
- Tony Angelo
- Cody Strathe
- Matt Hall
- J.Jay Levy
- Seth Barnes
- Andrew Pace
- Tom Frode Johansen
- Rob Cooke
- Luc Tweddell
- Hugh Neff
- Sébastien Dos Santos Borges