Summit Quest 300 brings healthy mix of rookies and veterans to keep Yukon Quest legacy alive

Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 7:53 PM AKST
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PLEASANT VALLEY, Alaska (KTVF) - It was a communal effort to keep the Yukon Quest tradition alive with the Summit Quest 300. The Alaska Board of Directors laid off their staff for most of the year, Pleasant Valley agreed to host the start of the race just weeks prior and the mushers will not see a prize purse for competing this year. All of these sacrifices were necessary to preserve the Yukon Quest legacy.

“We just thought it was very important to keep a Yukon Quest event alive this year,” said Doug Grilliot, the Musher’s Representative for the Alaskan Board of Directors. “It is giving back to the community too, I mean the community gives so much to us and the mushers up here wanted to race. The organization got together over the summer and said, ‘if humanly possible, we are going to put on a race.’”

With COVID-19 restrictions and the United State-Canadian border closure that nearly prevented the race from happening, the field 18 mushers for the Summit Quest 300 featured many Alaskans, and many rookies, looking to qualify for the conventional 1,000-mile international race if it can return in 2022. Among the 11 first-year mushers that took off from the Pleasant Valley Store Saturday was D.J. Starr of Huslia, one of the few distant mushers in his village, who hopes to play a long-lasting role in the storied Alaskan sport.

“All of our heroes growing up were dog mushers, so it is something we all aspire to try to do eventually,” said Starr before the start of the race. “I want my children to learn and instill in them hard work and if you put your mind to something, go ahead and just go for it, that is what it’s about. Not only my children, I try to invite all kids. I like to try to find kids who don’t have access to a dog team and throw them on the runners and might spark interest in them.”

Prior to the 11 a.m. start, handlers of Starr’s team were livestreaming on social media to members back to Huslia, who were in full support of Starr.

On the other side, the 2021 Summit Quest 300 had no shortage of veterans either, who have previously conquered the mighty Eagle and Rosebud Summits, each 3,600+ feet in elevation.

“This will be our fourth time going over Eagle Summit in one direction or the other, but the bigger obstacle is Rosebud, it’s like climbing a tower,” added Deke Naakgeboren, a veteran from Fairbanks.

Some mushers were using the Summit Quest 300 as a qualifier for longer distant races, such as the Iditarod, while others were just hoping to keep the sport afloat for years to come.

“We are just keeping the sport alive until we figure out what the next generation of it is going to look like,” said Jodi Bailey, a veteran from Chatanika.

“This is my favorite race, so it is just great that we were able to pull it off and put it together,” added Ben Good of North Pole.

This year’s race also marked the return of veteran musher Hugh Neff, two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. Neff was suspended from the race after one of his dogs, Boppy, died on the 2018 trail of aspiration pneumonia, among other health problems that the Quest says were preventable. The Fairbanks musher appealed the suspension, which was ultimately denied by the Quest Board. With his suspension expired, Neff must complete the 300-mile Yukon Quest race in order to qualify for a future 1,000-mile race. When Neff took off from the chute in Pleasant Valley, he was carrying more than his heavy emotions of being able to return to the race.

“[Today] mean a lot. More than people will ever know,” said Neff with tears in his eyes before the race. “I am carrying Olivia’s grandpa, LeRoy Shank, who just passed away, I am carrying his ashes on the trail. It is definitely one of the biggest moments of my life.”

Shank, a co-founder of the Yukon Quest Race and grandfather of Neff’s wife Olivia, died at the age of 79 in April after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.

That seemed to be a theme for this year’s Quest; remembering and upholding the traditions of the acclaimed race. Although it may not be the Yukon Quest of years past, the Summit Quest 300 ensures that the Quest legacy lives on.

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