Behind 14 dogs, two-time defending Yukon Quest champion Allen Moore rolled out of the starting chute in Whitehorse on Saturday morning, the first musher to head into some of the coldest, most remote terrain in North America. Thousands cheered near the start in Shipyards Park near the Yukon River.
History was in his sights. If Moore is first to the Fairbanks finish line, some 1,000 miles west, he will tie Hans Gatt as a three-time champion, one behind Lance Mackey's Quest record of four.
But Mackey is back in the Quest too, and a fifth victory would emphatically separate the Fairbanks musher from all challengers. In his last Quest two years ago, Mackey struggled to reach the halfway point of Dawson City, where he eventually scratched. In 2014, he stayed on the sidelines for both the Quest and the Iditarod.
But this year, Mackey is back for a full dose of racing. Two weeks ago, he finished a distant 14th in the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel, and he's signed up for the Iditarod, which begins March 7 in Anchorage. He remains the only musher to have ever won the Quest and Iditarod back to back -- a feat he accomplished twice.
Mackey's presence behind a young dog team isn't the only reason why this Quest is being touted as the most competitive in years -- perhaps ever.
Starting moments behind Moore will be Eureka musher Brent Sass, who was neck-and-neck with Moore last year in the closing miles of the race along these same trails outside of Whitehorse. After dozing off, Sass fell from his sled and suffered a concussion, forcing him to scratch.
Another racer going back to back this year is one of the most successful in the history of the sport, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, the 1989 Quest champion who's back in the race for the first time in 25 years.
"Jeff is a smart racer," Moore said on the Quest website. "He's definitely a force to be reckoned with. However, he is almost like a rookie a little bit because it's been so long since he's run the Quest trail.
"It's easy to forget how tough some portions of the trail are when it's been 25 years. The 200-plus miles from Pelly to Dawson ... a lot of people can't believe how far that is.
"Jeff is a competitor, though. He could do it."
So could several others. Ray Redington Jr., a Quest rookie, was eighth in the Iditarod last year and finished just minutes behind winner Moore in the Copper Basin 300 earlier this season. Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom was fourth in that same Iditarod and has the benefit of experience on the Quest trail, finishing sixth in his rookie run.
"Joar will be one of the ones to watch," Moore said. "He knows the trail, having run it two years ago. He will definitely be up in the top group."
In many years, weather decides the Yukon Quest as much as the talent of the dog teams. This year may be no exception, with the temperature hovering at minus-31 in Whitehorse at 10 a.m. Saturday, making those long distances between checkpoints seem even longer.
The first stop is Braeburn, about 100 miles down the trail.