Back with the husky who powered him to a stirring, come-from-behind victory in last year's Yukon Quest, Hugh Neff leads a strong field of mushers who will leave Whitehorse on Saturday morning for the 30th running of the international sleddog race.
All five of last year's top finishers are back and so is Walter, Neff's 8-year-old Alaskan husky who shared the Golden Harness Award last year with teammate Juanita.
This will be Walter's ninth 1,000-mile race. He helped Neff, a finisher in nine Quests and nine Iditarods, bag his first 1,000-mile championship a year ago, one of nine dogs that chased down Allen Moore of Two Rivers in the final stretch.
Neff beat Moore by 26 seconds, the closest in Quest history. His team trailed Moore's by an hour with 20 miles left but managed to close the gap.
"It was Walter's grit and determination that lead the team to victory on the last leg of the trip," Neff says on his website.
The Quest covers a thousand miles of trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, alternating directions each year. It follows historical gold rush and mail delivery routes established more than a century ago.
It is a race for the rugged, one that features four mountain summits and can deliver brutally wicked weather. The distance between its 10 checkpoints is daunting -- in some cases, nearly 200 miles, which can make for long stretches of solitude.
A field of 26 mushers are entered, 11 of them rookies. The fastest of them should reach the Fairbanks finish line in about nine or 10 days.
Neff, a 45-year-old who lives in Tok, will be the fourth musher to leave the start line Saturday, and he'll be driving a veteran team.
"Speed isn't what wins the Quest," he said at Thursday night's draw in Whitehorse, "it's keeping your team together."
The first musher to hit the trail will be Brian Wilmshurst, who makes his home in Dawson City -- the race's halfway point. Four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks will leave sixth.
Moore be the 11th to leave. Brent Sass of Eureka, fifth last year, will leave 18th and Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, fourth last year to claim Rookie of the Year honors, will leave 20th.
Mushing fans packed the Yukon Convention Centre on Thursday night for the bib draw. Mackey, the only musher in the world with four Quest victories and four Iditarod victories, was happy with his number.
"I'll take it," he told the crowd, according to a Quest press release. "Number six has been good to me before," noting that he wore No. 6 en route to his 2006 Quest victory.
2013 Yukon Quest start order
1. Brian Wilmshurst, Dawson City
2. Markus Ingebretsen, Big Lake
3. Rob Cooke, Saint Jacques, New Brunswick
4. Hugh Neff, Tok
5. Cody Strathe, Fairbanks
6. Lance Mackey, Fairbanks
7. Normand Casavant, Whitehorse
8. Kelley Griffin, Wasilla
9. Randy MacKenzie, Fort McMurray, Alberta
10. Susan Rogan, Whitehorse
11. Allen Moore, Two Rivers
12. Christina Traverse, Fort McMurray, Alberta
13. Denis Tremblay, Quebec
14. Matthew Failor, Big Lake
15. Dan Kaduce, Chatanika
16. Misha Pedersen, Willow
17. Abbie West, Two Rivers
18. Brent Sass, Eureka
19. Dyan Bergen, Yellowknife
20. Jake Berkowitz, Big Lake
21. Dave Dalton, Healy
22. Ed Abrahamson, Fairbanks
23. Scott Smith, Willow
24. Darrin Lee, Chistochina
25. Ed Hopkins, Tagish, Yukon
26. Crispin Studer, Carcross, Yukon
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By BETH BRAGG