WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory (AP) -- Thirty-one mushers embarked Sunday on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a 1,000 mile race that 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, Alaska. Gourley is racing in his third Quest, having finished ninth in 1992 and 13th in 1993. This year's purse is $125,000.
''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.
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, but the Quest requires mushers to use one sled from start to finish.
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. 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 the trail through jumbled ice on the Yukon River. Some of the ice chunks were the size of compact cars.
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 was not entered. Second-place finisher Thomas Tetz of Carcross, Yukon Territory, also was entered in 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.
When asked by KTUU-TV in Anchorage what is the secret to his winning formula, he answered with one word. ''Preparation.''
Musher Jerry Louden of Two Rivers, Alaska, 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.
William Kleedehn of Carcross, Yukon Territory, is coming off a strong third-place finish in the Copper Basin 300. His best finish in the Quest was seventh in 1998. He modified his sled with solid panels on the sides so if he tips the sled on the river crossings the stanchions won't break.
Tim Osmar of Clam Gultch, Alaska, 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.
''We're going to go out there and try to do the best we can. I think we'll be right up there though if all goes well,'' Osmar said.
Frank Turner of Whitehorse, who was third last year and holds the course record of 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes set in 1995, was the third musher to head to Fairbanks.
Other contenders include Jack Berry, 43, from Homer, who has steadily improved his finishes, capping off the 2000 race with a fifth place finish, and Dave Sawatzky of Healy who has run the Quest eight times and came in third in 1993.
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