Yukon North Of Ordinary

Sports archive for January 29, 2013

Defending Quest champ tags trio to watch

Hugh Neff has made the most of his time in the spotlight.

By Marcel Vander Wier on January 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm

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Photo by Marcel Vander Wier

COUPLE OF CHAMPS – Hugh Neff, winner of the 2012 Yukon Quest, pats the head of his lead dog Walter while talking all things mushing yesterday at the Old Fire Hall.

Hugh Neff has made the most of his time in the spotlight.

Winning the 2012 Yukon Quest has sent the 45-year-old on a trip around the world, where he has worked tirelessly to promote the annual international race.

“I’m a busy person,” the Alaskan musher admitted. “This is an adventure. I’m just having fun and enjoying it.”

Clean-shaven and dressed in his standard attire of ball cap, jeans and T-shirt, Neff seemed at ease as he kicked off QuestFest activities at the Old Fire Hall in downtown Whitehorse Monday afternoon.

With two of his sled dogs resting at his feet, Neff told stories from the Yukon Quest trail that elicited peals of laughter and applause from the assembled crowd of about 40 people.

Neff said the most memorable moment of last year’s race came just outside of Whitehorse.

Racing with his headlamp turned off, Neff came across Quest legend Frank Turner in the woods. Turner was out with a group of 30 tourists.

After a brief conversation, Neff urged his dogs onward. Shortly after, he passed Allen Moore, eventually crossing the finish line a mere 26 seconds ahead of his Alaskan counterpart.

“It was a very strange feeling to win,” he said.

Despite his first victory, Neff does not believe he is a favourite to repeat, instead pointing to three Alaskan mushers entering the race with better chances than his.

Neff tagged four-time winner Lance Mackey, Moore, and sophomore musher Jake Berkowitz as the three teams to beat this year. By Mile 101, a race favourite should emerge, he said.

“It’s a hard race to determine,” Neff said. “Eagle Summit always decides it. Not too many humans travel those mountains. It’s a different world out there.”

Neff said he’s content to simply be in the hunt, and hopes to stick with the leaders until the Alaskan mountains.

At that point, it will be the dogs and the musher’s trail experience that decide the race.

“With sled dogs, it’s about quality, not quantity,” Neff said. “One year, I ran from Circle to Whitehorse with seven dogs, and passed a lot of people. You want dogs that are pulling. If not, they’re a weakness waiting to happen.”

Neff said he trains his dogs in snowstorms to make sure they are all pulling, and “plays with his team” on the first half of the Quest until Dawson City to make sure each dog is in a position to give maximum contributions.

“The more they’re appreciated, the better,” he added. “They’re going to take care of you.”

Neff hopes his “chaotic lifestyle” – including irregular sleep and plenty of travel – has been a good preparation for the Quest trail.

The 2013 Quest will mark Neff’s 13th appearance in the 1,000-mile marathon. Since 2000, Neff has run 12 Quests and nine Iditarods.

“It’d be nice to win the Iditarod, but for me, it’s all about the Quest. That’s what Jack London talked about.”

Following the 2013 Quest, Neff will become the first Alaskan in 40 years to compete in Norway, he told the crowd.

Walter, the Alaskan husky that led Neff to glory last February, is now eight years old and will likely be running his last Quest. This year, Neff’s team will average six years old.

“The key is dogs knowing where they’re going,” he said.

“What’s beautiful about distance mushing is it keeps huskies thriving in the North,” he added.

“Being out in the woods, listening to the wind, it’s a magical feeling. When you’re out on the trail, only two things can be heard – the sled runners running over the ground, and the jingle of dog tags. It’s like your gliding in the woods. You can feel the energy of the trail.

“Many people think this race is a monstrous marathon. For me, 1,000 miles is a walk in the park. I look forward to it.”

Last year, Neff took home $28,395 for his Quest win. This year, the winning purse drops to $18,930 – the lowest total since 1995.

While the prize money has dwindled, the mushers remain, even while Neff estimates a musher’s total cost to compete at upwards of $10,000.

“We love what we do,” Neff said. “It’s our passion. The more local interest we find in this, the better.”

Neff said trail and weather conditions are shaping up to make for a great race, tagging -22 C as prime running conditions. Last year’s race temperatures hovered around -5 C.

“I think it’s going to be a fun race this year,” Neff said. “We all want to put on a good show.”

QuestFest continues this week with a variety of presentations and film screenings at the Old Fire Hall. Special 30th anniversary Quest merchandise is also available for purchase.

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