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WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory - Thirty-one mushers embarked Sunday on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a 1,000-mile competition mushers say is tougher than the better-known Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
John Gourley of Healy, Alaska, was the first musher to head out on the trail, which this year goes from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Gourley is racing in his third Quest, having finished ninth in 1992 and 13th in 1993.
"Oh, boy, here we go, follow me," Gourley said moments before pulling his snow hook and heading down the trail, which goes over four mountains including the 3,800-foot King Solomon's Dome and 3,650-foot Eagle Summit.
By 9 this morning, all but one of the 31 mushers had made it into the first checkpoint of Braeburn, on the road to Dawson. Bill Pinkham was the first in at 1:25 a.m., while William Kleedehm followed at 2:09 and Cim Smyth at 2:25. Three others followed at about 2:50 a.m.
Many mushers say the Quest is tougher than the 1,100-mile Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome because temperatures on the trail are colder, the mountains are higher and the race has fewer checkpoints. The Iditarod also allows mushers to change sleds, which the Quest doesn't.
Several hundred people in Whitehorse braved zero-degree temperatures to watch the teams take off under bright, sunny skies in what was considered perfect mushing weather. Organizers said the first 100 miles of the trail were well-groomed and would provide the teams with a good opportunity to loosen up.
Race manager Leo Olesen said the trail was good to Dawson. The second half of the trail, however, promised to be very rough. Volunteer trail-breakers used axes and chain saws to cut through car-sized jumbled ice on the Yukon River.
Nearly one-third of the teams entered in this year's Quest are rookies. Last year's winner, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, is running the Iditarod this year and did not enter. Second-place finisher Thomas Tetz of Carcross, Yukon Territory, also entered the Iditarod.
John Schandelmeier, 48, of Paxson Lake, Alaska, who won the race in 1992 and 1996, was considered one of the top competitors. He's competed in the Quest 11 times, finishing in the top 10 except once. He said his team is a little young this year and will be stronger next year.
Musher Jerry Louden of Two Rivers also was being closely watched. Louden is Zirkle's kennel partner and is using a couple of dogs that were on her winning team last year. Louden has run the Quest four times. His best finish was sixth in 1997.
Tim Osmar of Clam Gultch celebrated his 34th birthday by heading down the trail. Osmar is running both the Quest and the Iditarod. He finished third in the Tustumena 200 and expects to finish in the top three in the Quest.