The final hurdle before Saturday’s start of the Yukon Quest has come and gone. Mushers, their handlers, and fans gathered at the Yukon Convention Centre Thursday night for the 2019 Start and Draw Banquet.
The Convention Centre was a bustling place, there was not an empty seat. Before the mushers were formally introduced fans got another chance to mingle with them before they head out on their 1,000-mile journey.
Master of Ceremonies, Mike Fancie, quieted the crowd so the Musher Flag Procession, led by the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group could commence. The crowd got to their feet and applauded with such vigour as the 30 mushers made their way down the aisle and up onto the stage.
The national anthems of the United States and Canada were sung by Ellen Thompson.
The welcome and blessing were given by Elder Betsy Jackson, Ta’an Kwäch’än First Nation and Councillor Jesse Dawson, Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
Welcome speeches were given by Richard Mostyn, Minister of Highways and Public Works and the Public Service Commission, as well as Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis, who must have had a record-setting speech for how fast he spoke so the dinner could begin.
After dinner, Race Marshal Doug Harris, head vet Dr. Nina Hansen, race manager Brianna Mackay, and head of PR Pixie Ingram all spoke and thanked their teams.
Harris, Hansen, and Mackay remained on stage so the start of the bib draw could begin.
The mushers drew coins out of a bunny boot, and the order the mushers chose depended on the order in which they signed up for the Quest. Rob Cooke, the first musher to sign up for the race, went first and promptly chose the very last starting position, 30.
Denis Tremblay was the 17th musher to draw a number from the bunny boot. Tremblay will be the first musher to leave the start gate on Saturday at 11 a.m. from Shipyards Park in Whitehorse. Tremblay, a veteran of the race, from Saint-Michel-des-Saint, Que., breaks a three-year cycle of a rookie musher leading the teams out of the chute.
Tremblay said he is excited to be the first musher to leave the chute because it will give him and his dogs more chances to rest.
“I’m excited, I prefer first to last,” said Tremblay. “It’s not an advantage, there is more layover time at the first checkpoint. As opposed to a 12-hour stop, because we have 30 teams, I stop one and a half hours more than the last team, it’s more rest for the dogs.”
He is also excited that his team will get to lead instead of chasing other dog teams.
“I prefer that,” said Tremblay. “We have more space to stop after the first 50 to 60 miles, it’s maybe the better spot for stops.”
When asked if he would finish first Tremblay just smiled and said, “I don’t know, but I have a good dog team, a race is a race.”
Jim Lanier, a rookie and possibly the oldest racer ever to sign up for the Quest at 78, drew the number 13 bib. During his speech Lanier had the crowd roaring with laughter.
“I have done the Iditarod plenty of times and it was getting too hard, I wanted to do an easier race,” he said with a big grin on his face.
All the mushers had time at the podium after the draw. They thanked their families, their handlers, and their dogs as well as shared past experiences (or in the case of the rookies what they were expecting and their goals).
Quest trail update
Earlier on Thursday before the banquet, there was a mushers meeting where they were told about the trail conditions, amongst other things. Sgt. John Mitchell of the Canadian Rangers spoke to the media about the trail conditions for this year’s Quest.
“The trail is a lot better than what was planned,” said Mitchell. “Just as background we had really warm trail conditions and warm temperatures earlier in the winter. That’s changed over the last few weeks for the good. The low snow conditions allowed us to brush out the trail. We got the snow dump there and it set up, we got a pretty good base.”
Even though there is a good trail, Mitchell still warns that there are still technical challenges.
“Just because it’s a good trail it doesn’t stop the overflow and rivers coming up,” said Mitchell. “You have to remember the only constant on the trail is change. It changes every minute, every hour, of every day. The glaciers right now are staying pretty flat and dry which is good for the dog teams, and the overflow is minimal, but teams will still have to go through it.”
Looking ahead in the forecast, colder temperatures are in store. Mitchell hopes it helps the trail for the better.
“I hope it improves it,” said Mitchell. “Cross your fingers and pray that it will set up the two overflow areas we have so the ice is thick enough for the teams to pass over without breaking through. Unfortunately, what happens when it’s cold, it makes the glaciers more active. The colder temperatures will also help set up the snow.”
“Not really,” said Mitchell. “It’s sort of just normal. We have low snow, we have normal river ice, ice is always rough when there is no snow on it. The crew goes in and chops their way through it so you have a rough chop. The problem is the snow didn’t fill it in so it’s like running on ice cubes.”
Building the trail is a sense of pride for Mitchell and the other crew.
“It’s a matter of pride for us,” said Mitchell. “It’s a chance for us as community patrols to work with other community patrols. It’s pretty amazing what the crew can do. We are looking at 570-kilometres of trail from Whitehorse to the Alaska border. We put in that trail in three-and-a-half days.”