By ANDREW CREMATA
If you happen to be in Whitehorse this Saturday, the howling and barking youll hear at the end of Main Street will mark the commencement of the 24th annual Yukon Quest. As dog teams assemble at the starting line of the 1,000-mile race, their yelps of excitement mingle with the steam that rises from their mouths. For the mushers, its time to focus amidst probing press and curious spectators. Twenty-eight teams will hit the trail starting at 11 a.m., braving a trail that proved cumbersome for many in last years race.
The journey to the starting line is no different. Training for the race during the summer is essential for conditioning the dogs, and for a handful of teams, Skagway offers a way to prepare for the race during those crucial months.
Hugh Neff, who hails from Evanston, Illinois near Chicago, dropped out of last years Quest due to a controversy at the Dawson checkpoint. Neff has trained his dogs in Skagway during previous years and while he did not work in Skagway last summer, he still lists Skagway as his current residence.
At the time, Neffs frustration with the 2006 Quest left him questioning whether he would return to the starting line for this years event. Neff said his love of the sport drew him back into the field this year despite disappointment from last years turn of events.
It was really not a big deal, he said via telephone from his training site on Annie Lake Road near Whitehorse. Im cautiously optimistic for this year. This is the most talented team Ive ever had.
That team includes his girlfriend and long-time assistant Tamra Reynolds, a new handler from Yorkshire, England, Laura Taylor, and many returning dogs from his 2006 team. Neffs dogs were originally trained to be sprint dogs, but over the past year he has trained them to handle the long-distance marathon type of racing necessary for success in the Quest.
Neff describes his time on the trail as a paid vacation, and said the keys to victory included getting the dogs to work as a team and avoiding the soap opera involving race officials and other teams.
This year Neff plans to spend most of his time alone out on the trail, enjoying the time in solitude with his dogs. He said he missed Skagway last year, but frequent visits remind him why he likes it here so much.
Skagway isnt the only city on his mind.
I hope I can put some smiles on peoples faces in Chicago after the Bears loss, he said referring to the Chicago Bears defeat in this years Super Bowl.
Sebastian Schnuelle has also worked and lived in Skagway the last few summers, training his dogs at a local tour operation. In the last three Quests, Schnuelle has improved from tenth to ninth to sixth in 2006, and is hopeful 2007 sees further improvement.
Next year, Schnuelle said he will be training his dogs on glaciers in Skagway and Juneau, where helicopters provide access to dog sled rides in the snow pack for tourists willing to pay the hefty price.
Its definitely a good way for training, said Schnuelle from Whitehorse.
Schnuelle said trail conditions this year had been fast, but would prefer a slower trail as this better suits his team. He said it starting snowing heavily on Tuesday and added, I hope it stays this way.
Both Neff and Schnuelle said they are optimistic about their chances this year. Neff said the favorite has to be Whitehorses Frank Turner, who won the race two years running. Both agreed eight to ten teams would be competitive for the title this year, and they were happy with the level of training they had sustained during the winter months.
The other guys are training pretty damn hard too, said Schnuelle.
Local tour company Alaska Excursions is sponsoring musher Richie Beattie in this years race. Beattie works and trains his dogs at the companys Dyea location during the summer months by pulling tourists on wheeled-carts meant to provide the thrill of mushing without the snow and ice.
Office manager Rebecca Frazer said the facility housed 52 of Beatties dogs last summer and he had worked there for several years. Beattie finished ninth in last years Quest.
Another musher, J.T. Hessert, trains his dogs on the glaciers above Skagway and is entering his first Quest this year. Neither Hessert nor Beattie was available for comment.
In last years race, poor trail conditions combined with inadequately marked trails led to a great deal of frustration from various mushers, and necessitated altering the finish due to lack of snow.
Neff said he expects a slog-fest this year and that teams could be facing a lot of jumbled ice in portions of the trail. Soon after the finish, both Neff and Schnuelle will get ready for the Iditarod, which starts on March 3.
Said Neff, The Iditarod is the big boy.
When asked why the mushers choose to face the elements in one of the coldest places on earth, Neff said, Were having a good time out there.
UPDATE: Neff was third and Schnuelle was sixth into Dawson City on Valentine's Day.
See race updates at www.yukonquest.com and watch for Andrew's race report and photos of the start in the Feb. 23 issue.