BRAEBURN, Yukon — It's been 25 years since Jeff King ran the Yukon Quest, but the first 100 miles were plenty smooth for the former champion.
King quietly arrived at the first checkpoint of the 1,000-mile trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks at 8:50 p.m. Saturday, surprising even race officials with his abrupt appearance. As it turned out, King was a bit shocked himself.
King, of Denali Park, hasn't run the Quest since 1990, and he said the first portion of the trail took a different route in the early days. He figured the first leg would take about 12 hours, but he found himself cruising faster than expected down an unfamiliar trail. So he completed the trip to Braeburn in about 10 hours.
"The trail was so good I didn't see any reason to stop," King said while sitting inside the Braeburn Lodge after his run.
But by nightfall Sunday, King was no longer out front -- and a lead pack had started to take shape. Hugh Neff, the 2012 Quest champion, was the first musher out of the next checkpoint of Carmacks, departing at 4:09 p.m. King followed at 5:34 p.m. Still in Carmacks -- but expected to leave shortly -- are Brent Sass, Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway and Ray Redington Jr., all considered top contenders. The next checkpoint of McCabe Creek is about 40 miles down the trail and some 770 miles from Fairbanks.
King's run into Braeburn was good enough that he said he was able to rest three of his dogs in the basket for various stretches. But even though he outpaced the rest of the field by at least 90 minutes, King said his poor estimate of the transit time showed that "clearly there's a learning curve going on" after his long absence.
His surprising run capped an intriguing opening day for the Quest, which began in Whitehorse with extreme temperatures and an enthusiastic crowd.
Allen Moore was the first to launch his team through the icy mist. Led by the two-time defending champion, 26 mushers left Shipyards Park, drawing cheers from thousands of hardy spectators who lined the trail.
One by one, mushers sped by behind facemasks and heavy fur-lined hoods, leaving trails of frozen breath behind.
The race includes four Quest champions — King, Moore, Neff, and Lance Mackey — and participants from five countries. Moore earned the honor of departing first by drawing the No. 1 bib Thursday at the race's start banquet.
The Two Rivers musher said he prefers to run from behind for much of the Quest and predicted he wouldn't make much of an effort to hold the lead.
"I better stop pretty soon so they can all pass me," Moore said before the race. "That might just happen."
The race was notable for its coldest start in several years, leaving the dog staging area shrouded in mist before the first team pulled out.
Dave Branholm, a five-time Iditarod finisher handling for Ray Redington Jr., shook his head as he looked at a temperature dial on the back of his musher's sled before the race. It read 38 below zero, information that Branholm said he'd rather not have.
"I don't know why you'd want to do that," he said, pointing to the gauge. "I think I'd smash that with a snow hook."
The weather didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the mushers, who let out a steady chorus of yelps as race time drew near. Neff, the 2012 champion, said the conditions reminded him of home.
"I'm from Tok, Alaska," he said. "Cold is every day. I don't know that anything is different now."
The race is also notable for being the 25th start for Healy musher Dave Dalton, the most ever in the Yukon Quest.
"I think I get a watch at the end of the trip," Dalton said with a grin.
Sixteen veterans and 10 rookies are running the Quest this year. The 2015 purse is more than $130,000, which will be distributed among the top 15 finishers.