Scandinavian duo plays cheeky game of cat and mouse along Yukon Quest trail

Yukon Quest mushers continue to come across the finish line, and competition in is not confined to winning when it comes to the thousand-mile sled dog race.

The story of the battle between two Quest mushers who finished nearly a day behind the winner.

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Tom Frode Johansen arrived in Whitehorse Tuesday afternoon. He was the first rookie to finish, but not the first Scandinavian.

While the first mushers were chasing one another over the past week, there were antics playing out behind them. The two mushers who finished sixth and seventh were caught in a cheeky game of cat and mouse.

Johansen, from Norway, and Torsten Kohnert, from Sweden, have raced against each other before in Europe. This year, the rivalry played out between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. As Kohnert chased the leaders for hundreds of miles, Johansen was hot on his heels.

“I said there’s no way the Norwegian guy is catching me,” he said. “Not here.”

At first, Kohnert wasn’t worried about Johansen. Kohnert had already run the Quest twice, while Johansen was just a rookie. But then he noticed the Norwegian was quietly gaining on him.

When they chatted in the checkpoints, Johansen would exaggerate about how long he was resting. He would claim that he was going to sleep for 5 hours but really only stay for 3. By sleeping less, he was slowly chipping away at Kohnert’s lead.

At first Kohnert didn’t know what was going on, because Johansen was behind him. Then, all of a sudden, his lead had dwindled to one hour.

“He was cutting rests all the time,” Kohnert said. “He was lying to me. So I say okay sucker.”

So Kohnert came up with his own plan. When he got to Pelly Crossing, he wrote a wake-up time of 5:45 a.m. on the board in the community center. When Johansen arrived an hour later, he looked at Kohnert’s wake-up call and figured he could sleep for awhile. But Kohnert was playing a trick. He waited until the Norwegian went to sleep, then grabbed his stuff and hit the trail.

“He sneaked out on me,” he said. “He did a little Lance Mackey. Good job.”

Johansen couldn’t catch him. But he still clinched Rookie of the Year when he crossed the finish line on Tuesday afternoon.

“I am very proud to be the first rookie,” Johansen said.

The 54-year-old musher has been running dogs for more than half his life. Though he lives on the coast of Norway, he’s wanted to mush in Alaska and Canada since he was a little boy. Standing in the finish chute, he said it lived up to his hopes.

“Oh it was fantastic,” he said.

Unlike races in Norway, he had the trail to himself.

“This is one of the things I really enjoy,” Johansen said. “You don’t see the other mushers very much.”

Early Tuesday morning, the finish chute was moved from downtown Whitehorse to the Tahkini Hot Springs outside of town because of open leads on the Yukon River. Kohnert was just getting out of the hot springs when Johansen arrived. Besides getting charged by a moose near the Fortymile River, he said the Quest was pretty tame this year.

“Last year it was really cold, year before it was glare ice and it was cold,” Kohnert said. “This year it was more just cruising along and have a nice trip.”

He was hoping to finish in the top five, but said the competition was too stiff this year. The field included three former champions and a bunch of veterans.

“They did really good job, they were not resting a lot, so it’s just a little too much,” Kohnert said.

He was bittersweet about the ending.

“It’s nice to be done but it’s also a little sad that it’s over,” he said.

While the first mushers and their dogs are relaxing in Whitehorse, for many the race isn’t over yet. About a dozen teams are still on the trail, spread across the last 200 miles.