FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Before this year's Yukon Quest start banquet, Allen Moore asked his wife, 2000 Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle, if she could help him out a little. Last year he drew second to last, not his ideal choice for a starting position.
This year, Zirkle held the well-worn bunny boot mushers drew from to determine their starting position. She must have held the boot just right for Moore.
"I told her she better help me out in this number system. Last year it didn't work out too good," he said. "But wow, baby, you better give me three or four next time, it's too obvious getting one!"
By drawing No. 1, Moore will be the first musher out of the chute Saturday at the start of the 29th annual Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in downtown Fairbanks.
While the official purpose of the banquet was to draw starting bib numbers, it was really a time for mushers, officials, volunteers and fans to celebrate a little, and honor those it takes to make the race possible.
Over a prime-rib buffet dinner at the Westmark Hotel, mushers went up, one by one, to draw their number. Some mushers kept it brief, others had many to thank or a story to tell.
Rookie Gus Guenther, who drew 20, kept it the shortest, with only a brief "thank you." His moment came earlier in the night when he won his $1,000 entry fee back in a drawing for mushers who signed up early.
"I just realized my shirt was on (inside out)," he said after stepping on stage. "It's embarrassing, but I'm not changing it 'til I get to Whitehorse."
In a race that emphasizes the "code of the North," it was fitting that Race Marshal Hans Oettli stepped up to draw for Divide, Colo., musher Kurt Reich. Reich was catching up on rest after driving over 3,500 miles from Colorado to Alaska in extreme weather conditions.
"This race, to me, is all about team work," Oettli said. "I told him I would be happy to help out."
Veteran musher Hugh Neff asked for applause for Carl Cochrane, whose cabin outside of Circle has long served as an important stop for mushers along the Quest trail. Cochrane, who always kept coffee on for Quest mushers, died in June at age 77. One year, Cochrane lent the veteran Tok musher boots.
"(Cochrane) represents what the Quest is all about," Neff said. "We're not racing against each other, we're racing with each other."
Veteran Two Rivers musher Mike Ellis, who drew bib 18, started by thanking the groups nearly every musher thanked — family and friends.
"It's tough to get to the start line, and if you think it's easy — try it," he said.
For many, now it's just about getting to that start line.
"This has been the hardest winter of my whole entire life," veteran Two Rivers musher Abbie West said. "I can't wait to get on the trail because then everything will be better."
Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com