Mushers and fans gathered over the weekend to celebrate the completion of the 2016 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse. The event was highlighted by awards and stories from the trail.
About a dozen Tlingit dancers paraded onto the stage in fur, feathers, and traditional clothing to congratulate Hugh Neff for winning the Yukon Quest. They thanked him for mentioning Alaska’s native people when he came across the finish line first. Neff was impressed.
“I’m a native at heart and I’m a wolf at heart,” Neff said. “It was like a dream popping out of my heart that I got to see flowing around me.”
The 48-year-old Tok musher is a long-time Quest veteran. Throughout the race, he repeatedly acknowledged Alaska Natives such as George Attla and John Baker for teaching him how to mush and for producing his line of dogs. Neff said his popular brown dog named Lester is an Inupiaq Eskimo dog.
“I really take pride to be running dogs that are created by some of the greatest dog minds in the world,” said Neff. “I’m just lucky all I have to do is play with them and love them.”
In a speech to the crowd, Neff said he runs the Quest every year to race against himself.
“It’s not about trying to win this thing. It’s trying to be a better musher, being a better northerner,” Neff said.
A couple hundred guests showed up at the awards banquet in Whitehorse on Saturday. After racing all the way from Fairbanks, mushers were treated to a big buffet, live Can Can dancers, and lots of prizes.
This year’s Yukon Quest contained the usual excitement of a thousand-mile sled dog race. There were midnight chases, moose attacks, miles of bumpy jumble ice, broken sleds, and an epic storm.
“Stories. We all have stories,” an attendee proclaimed.
Third-place finisher Allen Moore talked about an upgrade he had made to his sled that backfired. He wanted to add some extra stopping power to go down Eagle Summit, so he rigged up a system to lower chains onto his runners with a string. It was working fine until he encountered knee-deep overflow on a creek and had to sit down on the back of his sled.
“When I did this I didn’t realize I stuck my foot through this cord, now something’s got me hogtied and I’m going through this water and I turn over in the water, laying in the water with the sled over sideways,” Moore said. “The dogs look back at me, what are you doing?”
Runner-up Brent Sass won four ounces of gold for being the first musher into Dawson. Sass, Neff, and Moore have chased each other for years. At one point early in the race, they all stopped at a trail cabin to rest around the same time.
“All three of us are standing there looking at each other, like ‘What’s your next move gonna be’”, said Sass.
He said it was fun competing against friends.
“It’s amazing it can be such a competitive sport and atmosphere and to be joking around with guys you want to beat,” Sass said.
Sass said he loves the Quest because it’s always a challenge.
“After having such a great race last year, and having such a difficult race this year, every year is different and that’s what keeps us coming back,” Sass said.
Gaetan Pierrard won the Red Lantern award, a tradition that started so the last-place competitor would have light on the trail. The Yukon resident had a good attitude about the prize.
“A souvenir for my first Quest,” Pierrard said. “At least I have something.”
He was happy to finish, because the race could have ended a lot earlier. On the first day, he broke his main line and almost lost his team. Pierrard said he learned a lot from the Quest but isn’t sure he’s ready for another.
“I’m just gonna enjoy right now and live the moment and not think about the future too much,” said Pierrard.
Japanese musher Yuka Honda said she was happy with her ninth-place finish. She has finished the Quest before, but this one had a special meaning.
“This time I was just thinking about my mom so much because she just passed away” Honda said.
Her mother asked her to run the Quest again, because it had been a dream of Honda’s for so long.
“I try for my mom this time,” said Honda. “Kind of special this year.”
Nineteen-year-old Laura Neese won the sportsmanship award for helping out other mushers and bringing joy to the trail.
“It was a joy to be out there with all you guys and travel and get to know you,” Neese said. “It’s a great race and thank you so much.”
The final competitors to take the stage were George Costanza and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Neff’s two lead dogs each received a bright golden harness and a plate of raw beef.