Most people noticed that musher Hugh Neff blazed out of the Yukon Quest start gate wearing his signature “The Cat in the Hat” headpiece. It’s hard to miss the tall red and white hat from the eponymous children’s book.
But Neff’s number-one fan noticed he was also wearing something else.
“He’s wearing the bracelet I gave him all the way into Canada,” she Sarah Thayer. “It’s to raise awareness of ASL.”
The Alaska resident is trying to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
She suffers from primary lateral sclerosis, a lesser known progressive neurodegenerative disease similar to ALS. She said she was taken surprise by the disease and wants others to know more about it. So she gave Neff an ALS awareness bracelet, along with jelly beans, which she said is his personal fuel source according his autobiography.
Thayer was one of hundreds of people who lined the sides of the gated path leading away from the Yukon Quest starting point in downtown Fairbanks. Many people who come to see the mushers and their dog teams at the beginning of the 1,000-mile international dog sled race feel a personal connection to the mushers, dogs, or race in some way.
Joyce White was among the crowd, relishing in the energetic antics of the sled dogs as 26 teams left the chute.
Her beloved dog “Scooter” was at home more than 2,600 miles away.
Although White had never been to the Yukon Quest before, she journeyed all the way from Des Moines, Iowa just to see it and said she wants to come back in two years.
When asked why, she said she was at a loss for words.
“I can’t explain it,” she said. “It’s the most magnificent thing. Look at them – jumping in the air and everything.”
Across the gated path, also known as a chute, from White was Rhonda Pearson, who was bundled up next to her husband and was ready to brave the sub-zero temperatures.
Pearson is a physical therapist from Wisconsin who is working temporarily in Fairbanks. She said she went on a sled dog ride and now appreciates how fit the dogs must be.
“They’re elite athletes, and I know there’s so much that goes into [mushing] with year-round training,” she said. "I have tremendous respect for the mushers as well.”
Not too far from her was a person who had lived in Fairbanks for quite some time, but was now redefining her relationship with the race through her life’s passion - photography.
“I’ve lived here for 20 years. I’ve seen the Quest finish. I’ve seen the Quest start. But I’ve never, really seriously tried to photograph it before,” said L.J. Evans.
Evans came with her photography class from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and said this is the closest she’s ever been to the dogs at the start of the race.
“This is very fun,” she said.
While some people feel a connection to the race before they come, others are just starting out their relationship even if they’ve already had a long one with Alaska.
Born in Kotzebue and raised in Delta Junction, Wanda Morden happened to be in Fairbanks during the Quest because she was attending her daughter’s baby shower.
She thought she would come to see the hallmark of outdoor adventure in Alaska. She was delighted at how the dogs jumped and yowled.
“Their energy is nothing like I’ve ever seen,” she said with a big smile.