Sass leads Yukon Quest mushers out of Eagle

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Frontrunners in the Yukon Quest are running toward the race’s halfway point at Dawson City, Yukon.

Defending Quest champion Brent Sass continues to lead the race. The Eureka musher was in an out of the Eagle checkpoint first this morning, after 4 hours of mandatory rest.

He only briefly shared the dog yard with chasers, Allen Moore and Hugh Neff, who arrived 2 hours after Sass.

Fellow veterans Matt Hall and Ed Hopkins are also in the mix near the front of the race.

(Photo by Molly Rettig)
(Photo by Molly Rettig)

Eagle is the only community on the 3 hundred miles of trail between Circle and Dawson, and the historic Yukon River town offers race watchers a glimpse at teams traversing a remote stretch of trail.

Brent Sass pulled into Eagle at 4:30 a.m. under a pale streak of northern lights, after mushing through the night on the Yukon River. He said the trail was fast.

“Real fast. Yea it was nice.”

He was greeted by a vet and a dozen volunteers in bright safety vests. Sass has blown through most checkpoints so far, so he gave an update of his first 360 miles.

“It’s been interesting,” he said. “I’ve been struggling a little with some sick dogs.”

After a lot of attention, he said they’re feeling better.

“In the last two runs they’ve been eating a lot better and their attitudes have come up,” Sass said.

On Monday, most of the mushers moved through Circle City, a village on the banks of the Yukon. Locals were out and about all day, dropping off snacks and cheering on the teams. Alexander Adlai said the Yukon Quest is the highlight of the year.

“It’s really good to see,” Adlai said. “It’s just like spring carnival of Circle City to see all these dogs and people come in here with all these dog trucks and everything.”

Another dog team pulled in as he was talking.

When they got into Circle, mushers cruised down the street and made a sharp left turn into the checkpoint. More than a hundred dogs were crammed into an area the size of a basketball court. Most were curled into tight balls, sleeping on piles of straw. After mushers spent an hour or so with their dogs, warming up food and massaging feet, they wandered into the fire hall in various stages of exhaustion.

“I just keep telling myself ‘stay awake,’ ‘stay awake,’ ‘stay awake,’” Seth Barnes said early Monday morning, as he collected dog bowls after camping his dogs. Like most of the mushers, he was very impressed with the last hundred miles of trail coming north to Circle.

“No overflow on Birch Creek. I mean it literally was perfect,” he said. “Definitely the best trail I’ve been on all year.”

His dogs come from Mitch Seavey’s kennel on the Kenai Peninsula. They’ve been training on gravel most of the winter, so he was really happy to get back in the snow.

“Can we just do 800 more miles of that trail?” he said.

It was about 25-below on the last stretch of Birch Creek, coming into Circle. Barnes said his team was adapting well to the colder weather.

“Their metabolism and diet changes and they start churning calories out and producing energy,” Barnes said.

Mushers grabbed soup, tortillas, and lasagna before finding a quiet spot to sleep for a few hours.

Andy Pace, a rookie from Healy, was the seventh musher into Circle.

He was clipping his dogs back to the line Monday afternoon after a seven-hour layover. He paused to separate the two lead dogs.

“Solo! Sorry, Solo’s trying to breed his daughter,” Pace said. “I can’t tell why. She’s not in heat but he sure thinks she is.”

Pace was excited for the next section of the race. From Circle, the trail follows the wide Yukon River as it snakes through low mountains. He’s run the Quest 300 before, but never the full thousand miles to Whitehorse.

“I’ve never been on the Yukon, so I finally get to see it,” Pace said.

With his team lined out, he cruised out of the crowded dog yard and turned toward the empty river.

The race changes once mushers get on the Yukon. Mushers have to negotiate sections of jumble ice where other creeks pour into the river. Trail breakers have blasted a path through the ice, but it can still be really rough. Also, the checkpoints are farther apart, with much less support from handlers and volunteers.

“You’re gonna be on your own,” Torsten Kohnert said. He’s a veteran musher from Sweden and likes this part of the trail. “It’s really nice. You can focus on the dogs and nothing else.”

After leaving Circle, Allen Moore, Hugh Neff, and Matt Hall camped at Trout Creek as well.

Moore was keeping an eye on Sass, who was doing a lot of long runs early in the race.

“Usually that catches up to you the second half of the race,” Moore said.

He said he doesn’t mind being behind him at this point.

“We know what he’s doing all the time and he don’t know what we’re doing,” Moore said. “I like it that way.”

In Eagle, the trail leaves the river and climbs American Summit. The next checkpoint is Dawson City, 144 miles away, where mushers take a mandatory 36-hour layover.