Defending champion Hugh Neff, and past winners Brent Sass and Allen Moore are pushing the pace at the front of Yukon Quest Sled Dog race. Also in the early mix are top rookie Katherine Keith and Quest veterans Matt Hall and Ed Hopkins. Leaders rested at Steeping Stone today (Feb. 6), 285 miles into the race, which started Saturday in Whitehorse. Trail conditions are allowing fast travel.
Sunday was the perfect day for dog mushing in Yukon Territories. It was three degrees below zero when Hugh Neff crossed the Yukon River in the blinding sunshine and stopped in Carmacks, 170 miles into the race. He knelt down next to his dogs and removed booties, while they snacked on frozen salmon chunks.
Neff was first into Carmacks, but he had a bumpy start to the race when he hit a tricky turn about 12 miles out of Whitehorse. There was a hard right turn, then a quick left. But on the inside corner of the second turn was a big tree. And on the right side of the trail, a steep bank.
“So if you put your brake too slowly you’re gonna hit that tree hard, you’re gonna have to let off the brake,” Neff said. “All of a sudden the whole team’s going over a cliff. Sled tipped over and I was like “Oh my god, oh my god.”
His sled got tangled up with another musher, Paige Drobny. A third musher, Gaetan Pierrard, helped get them both upright, and Neff continued down the hill.
“My team took off downhill, hit another tree, I bounced off, broke the carabiner that connects the sled to the dogs, and there goes my dog team,” Neff said. “And fortunately there were lots of people right down there on the river.”
Someone held onto Neff’s dogs until he could drag the sled over. All the dogs were fine, but Neff was a little banged up.
As the Carmacks Recreation Center filled up with dog teams Sunday afternoon, mushers agreed the trail was one of the fastest they had seen. Allen Moore said it was almost too fast.
“Can’t get much faster,” Moore said. “It’s almost like a skating rink.”
At the earlier checkpoint in Braeburn, about 45 minutes down the Klondike Highway, the dog yard was full.
Laura Neese attached a bale of straw to the top of her sled with a bungee cord as the sun climbed over the surrounding mountains. She said the run from Whitehorse was an adventure.
“Really beautiful, yea. Delightful,” Neese said. “There were a couple sections where a lot of us were tipping so you could see stuff everywhere.”
So Neese was happy to be doing the next section during daylight. On the way to Carmacks, mushers passed through the Chain of Lakes, a long section of lakes with a variety of portages in between.
“They’re usually pretty twisty, turny, straight down drops, they’re really fun if you’re ready for them,” Neese said.
As she took off, two helpers in big coats guided her dogs across the Klondike Highway to get back on the trail. Her sister, Erin, and brother in law, Keith Hottle, came up from Ohio to handle for Neese. They also happened to be on their honeymoon. That means they’ll spend the next week driving through the wilderness, sleeping in the truck, and helping untangle dogs at checkpoints. Not a typical honeymoon, but still kind of romantic.
“The sunrise this morning was pretty nice, we got to enjoy the together,” Neese said. “We stood by the fire for a couple minutes last night. So it has its moments.”
At 20 years old, Neese is the youngest musher in the race, again. Last year she won the sportsmanship award for helping out others on the trail, and for her unwavering smile. This year, her boss is running it too. Ed Stielstra runs the mushing kennel in Michigan where Neese lives and trains.
“I’m in awe of her,” Stielstra said. “She’s a racing phenom. She’s gonna do things in this sport that I never even had the desire to do.”
That’s part of the reason Stielstra is running, to help Neese build a dog team for future races, and to thank her for being such a good employee.
“She lives in one of our old dog trucks, because it’s the closest to the kennel,” Stielstra said. “I don’t think people know that. We have four cabins on our properties, and she lives in an old box truck.”
While Stielstra has run the Iditarod several times before, this is his first Quest. And he’s expecting a challenge.
“There’s very little opportunity for shelter compared to Iditarod,” Stielstra said. “Arguably that makes the Quest harder. It’s darker, it’s colder. We go over mountain summits for crying out loud here.”
On Sunday night mushers ran north on a fast trail under clear, cold skies, with hundreds of miles ahead of them.