FAIRBANKS — Twenty-three mushers and more than 300 sled dogs are off and running in the 2016 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
The 33rd edition of the 1,000-mile race started Saturday morning under cloudy skies that cleared later to sunshine. Mushers are headed to Whitehorse, Yukon, on a trail that retraces historic mail and supply routes along the Yukon River.
Thousands of fans lined both sides of the start chute in downtown Fairbanks, cheering as the dogs, some jumping in their harnesses, held their lines taut. One by one, three minutes apart, the sleds lurched forward and on down the trail, under the Wendell Avenue bridge and onto the Chena River.
Heading out ninth was defending champion Brent Sass of Eureka sporting sunglasses and a helmet, a piece of equipment he's worn in races since suffering a concussion in the 2014 Quest.
Sass thanked the crowd before hopping on his sled runners.
"Wild and free, baby!" he shouted while flying out of the chute, a reference to the name of his kennel, Wild and Free Mushing.
Earlier, while getting ready in the staging area, Sass said it was difficult to pick his final 14 dogs, because the 16 he had to choose from were all qualified. It was not until a few hours before the start that he made up his mind to leave two veteran dogs behind and take two rookies.
"I've been training this core group of dogs all season, and they've been a unit, so it's pretty sad to leave anybody behind really," Sass said. "But I'm really confident with my decision, and they're in good health and good shape, obviously, and they'll be great for Iditarod."
Sass, like a lot of mushers, said he would be conservative in the beginning and start to think more competitively later in the race.
"This is a long race, so it's maintaining for the first 6, 7, 800 miles and keeping your dog team happy and healthy, and after that is when the race really begins," he said. "But that involves a lot of wildcard things, and I've got some long runs planned."
Sass is one of three past champions in the race. The others are Two Rivers musher Allen Moore and Tok's High Neff.
All three plan to run next month's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, as do husband-and-wife mushers Cody Strathe and Paige Drobny of Ester.
The field includes nine rookies and 14 veterans. A $115,000 purse will be split among the top 10 finishers, with the winner getting $23,425.50.
In the staging area before the race's start, Strathe and Drobny worked together to unload their large shared trailer. By contrast, some out-of-town mushers had rented pickups from U-Haul.
Mushers chatted while packing their sled bags, making last-minute checks to be sure they had not forgotten anything.
Two Rivers musher Matt Hall — the 2014 Rookie of the Year, who many see as Sass's toughest competition this year — said the jitters from all the pre-race buildup would ease away once he was on the trail.
"It's exciting, but it's scary," Hall said. "This is the hard part at the moment. Once we get into that chute and we get counted down and we say, 'Let's go,' it's kind of pressure off. … Right now, it's just pressure. Any little thing that you forgot, or you're missing or that could go wrong still, until you're on the trail, is stressful."
Saturday provided much higher temperatures than the 2015 start in Whitehorse, where it was 40 below.
Healy's Dave Dalton, who is running his 26th Quest, said it's still important to be ready for the possibility that the weather will turn cold.
"This is Alaska, you know," he said while putting ointment and booties on his dog YoYo's feet. "You got to be ready for anything. If you're not, you're in trouble."
Fairbanks musher Tony Angelo is making his third attempt at the Quest and just hopes to finish after withdrawing in 2014 and scratching in 2015.
Angelo said he was a little worried about how the warm weather would affect his team, all large Siberian huskies except for one Siberian mix. The dogs do their best from zero degrees down to 20 below, he said.
"I'm a little bit concerned about the weather getting too warm, if it gets above 10, and I think it's predicted to do that all along the route," Angelo said. "So I'll have to take it a little bit slow and give 'em long breaks, stuff like that. A lot of water."
Among the spectators was Janie Papp, who was watching her seventh or eighth Fairbanks start in a row. Papp has a small dog team where she lives off of Old Murphy Dome Road, and though she does not race, she said her heart and soul belong to mushing.
"To me, they're all winners, it's just a matter of who crosses the finish line first," Papp said. "There's nothing greater. It's a lot better than any football game. They just work so hard."
Casey Grove is a staff writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.