Any chance to enter the 2016 Yukon Quest ended at the close of business Jan. 4. For teams planning to run this year's race, two trends are clear: Alaska weather is getting warmer and the mushers are getting older.
Our thermometer near Delta Junction registered a low of minus-31 F one evening back in November, but by morning the temperature had moderated to a balmy 7 below. Other than that evening, we've only had a few minus-20 nights. Much of Alaska has had decent snow, though in many locations, warm days and rain have eliminated much of the cover. North of Delta Junction, there is good snow, which is good news for the Yukon Quest, which begins Feb. 6 in Fairbanks.
The Quest field is always considerably smaller than the Iditarod's and this year is no exception: 25 vs. 86 entered in the race to Nome. There are a few obvious reasons for this:
• The Quest purse is about 20 percent of the Iditarod's.
• The Quest is colder, darker and comes with less hoopla than its big brother.
• There is far less media coverage, which means less attention and fewer sponsorship opportunities for mushers.
Sponsorship is a big deal for many kennels and a necessity for most in this day of increasing costs. Well-established dog yards and kennels that have tour-oriented businesses are usually able to fund themselves. But there are always kennels with relatively few dogs and great desire that manage to put together the resources necessary — including a $2,000 entry fee — to participate in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. Many of these dog drivers are older.
A look at the Yukon Quest rookies finds only one first-timer under the age of 35. Nineteen-year old Laura Neese is the youngest, operating out of Ed Stielstra's kennel in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She has good experience for a young musher, and if the weather holds for her, she should have a good run. The normal 40- and 50-below temperatures of the Upper Yukon could give her some problems. She has little experience dealing with dogs (or herself) under those conditions.
Seth Barnes is a 35-year-old rookie running out of the powerful Seavey Kennel, which has claimed the last four Iditarod titles between father Mitch (one) and son Dallas (three). He will be well supported and should have a crew of well-trained and experienced dogs — as he did in last year's Iditarod, where he finished 35th. Andrew Pace, 36, has only five years of dog experience, but he is well hardened from living in the Healy area and training along the Denali Highway.
There also are a couple of Norwegian rookies that have no Alaska experience, but impressive racing and touring backgrounds. One of them is 49, (I always claim that too...); the other admits to being 54.
Veteran Allen Moore, a three-time Quest champion at 58, which he considers young, is back after a runner-up finish last year. He's certainly one of the favorites.
None of remaining 14 Quest veterans are kids. Matt Hall, 24, has a better outdoor background and understanding of dogs than most Quest drivers. Matt grew up on the Yukon River about a dozen miles from the town of Eagle.
Cody Strathe and defending champion Brent Sass also slip into the under-40 contingent of teams with Quest experience. Brent trains hard and will be very focused. He runs full-time out of Eureka and has been on good snow since early in the season. Cody also has had a good training base in the Fairbanks area and I expect him to do well.
Another guy to watch is Ed Hopkins, an experienced musher from the Yukon. His third-place finish last season was no fluke — but a product of excellent dog care, perseverance and cold-weather expertise.
Cold weather helped ensure that 38 percent of Yukon Quest starters couldn't finish the 2015 race — and cold on the Quest isn't the same as cold on the Iditarod. Checkpoints on the Yukon Quest are quite far apart. Because the race is in February, temperatures doesn't rise much during the day.
I took a look at the long-range forecast (which I take with a full bucket of salt). For what it is worth, February is supposed to continue to be moderate. Providing it remains cold enough to keep the snow, that is a good thing for dog mushers. It is much easier to care for a team of animals at 20 than it is at minus-20.
The other good thing about warm-weather mushing is that all of us old guys don't have to wear so much gear on the trail. Fans will be able to recognize their favorite driver. A white mustache poking out from the parka will mean an old guy is out front, not just frost forming on Matt Hall.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.