Sass first to leave Dawson in Yukon Quest

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It was warm and misty on the Yukon River as Brent Sass left Dawson City with 13 dogs just after midnight.

Brent Sass feeding his dogs. (Photo by Molly Rettig, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Brent Sass feeding his dogs. (Photo by Molly Rettig, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Snowdrifts, ice melt and gold mines are just a few things mushers have to look out for in the second half of the Yukon Quest. The warm weather has caused some of the glaciated hillsides to melt onto the trail. Allen Moore said he was hoping to get through before it gets too bad.

“Right now they’re holding but any day you could just- and then you start getting wet, swimming wet,” Allen said.

The front-runners say Dawson City is where the race actually begins. Now it’s all about what they have left.

“How you’ve taken care of your dogs up to this point and what you have left that you can really decide how far, how much rest, all that,” said Allen.

The former Yukon Quest champion left Dawson shortly after Sass, in exactly the same position as he was two years ago.

“I was two hours behind and I caught up,” Allen said. “Hopefully the same will happen.”

Rest was the name of the game on Thursday. After crossing the Canadian border and making it halfway through the 1,000-mile race, mushers took a 36-hour layover in the small Klondike town.

Brent Sass was using a huge ladle to scoop a stew into dog bowls. It’s a high-calorie mixture of beef, kibble, and water.

One dog, Carbon, kicked his bowl over and ate the food off the snow. Sass was happy to see them scarf down the meal after fighting the stomach flu since the beginning of the race. He said the break in Dawson is all about food and sleep.

“Feeding them every six hours, rubbing them down, and letting them be,” Sass said.

Each dog got a personal back scratch after dinner.

“They did a good job,” Sass said. “I’m really proud of them, obviously. Really really proud of them.”

Mushers packed in as much sleep as they could too. After staying awake all week and mushing through the night, Sass slept through about half his time in Dawson.

Meanwhile, his handlers helped take care of the dogs.

Dawson is the first spot on the trail where they can actually help out. Nicole Bailey is a handler for Hugh Neff, and also his girlfriend. When his team arrived in Dawson, she grabbed hot chunks of chicken from a bucket and tossed them to the dogs.

She had already set up a tent across the Yukon River, where 22 campsites were nestled in the woods. On Thursday, dogs slept under pitched blue tarps filled with straw. The handlers are in charge of keeping them comfortable.

“We deal with injuries and stuff like that,” said Bailey. “Make sure they have wrist wraps on any wrists that show any signs of soreness.”

After going for a walk, the dogs milled around the campground, eating chunks of frozen king salmon. Fish is good for warm weather because it hydrates the dogs.

Bailey said the mushers also get pampered in Dawson.

“Same thing we do for the dogs,” Bailey said. “We feed ‘em and walk ‘em around a little bit.”

The first seven mushers trickled into town on Thursday to catch up on dogs, weather, and stories from the trail. Torsten Kohnert, a Quest veteran from Sweden, had an exciting one.

As he was running down to the Fortymile River in the dark, all of a sudden he felt the dogs accelerate. He looked up and saw a bull moose.

“It just came out of the woods and charged right at us, head down flipped ears back, and charged at the dogs,” Kohnert said. “I hit the brakes and start yelling at him and waving. He went by the whole team by a foot.”

Then he charged the sled. At the last minute, he veered away.

“I could just touch him with my finger if i wanted,” said Kohnert. “It was a good wakeup.”

While the leaders were taking their second nap, other mushers were just arriving in Dawson City. Yuka Honda came in Thursday afternoon after a day of heavy snow. Her parka and face mask were covered in white fluff. She looked tired after fighting through knee-deep snow on the Top of the World Highway.

“Wow,” Honda said. “Too much drifted snow. That’s not fun.”

Dawson City was coated in fresh snow Thursday night. As the race heads south, the snowpack slowly diminishes on the way to Whitehorse.