DAWSON CITY, Yukon—When the hour struck 3 a.m. Saturday, the three front-runners in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race were wide awake and scurrying about as they prepared to return to the trail.
After a mandatory 36-hour layover at the traditional halfway point of the race, the mushers and their dogs were anxious to get back on the clock.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s game time,” defending champion Lance Mackey announced.
Mackey swept through his camp like a force of nature.
First a zipper broke off one of the pant legs of his snowsuit, leaving his right leg exposed to the wind.
“Get the duct tape!” he barked at his wife, Tonya Mackey.
Then he found the booties on his dogs were put on too tight. Mackey cursed, then went along the gangline and adjusted the booties dog by dog.
Mackey frantically raced to get his team outfitted and his sled packed for his 2:19 a.m. AST departure time.
“People are always asking me how I pack all the stuff I need onto my sled,” said Mackey, fiddling with straps and zippers and bags on his sled. “‘Just like that’ is my answer.”
With a similar rush, Mackey flew down the trail over the next 13 hours and led the field into the Stewart River dog drop 100 miles away at 3:02 p.m. AST. Behind him on the trail were William Kleedehn, Hans Gatt and five pursuers who completed their layovers Saturday. The race will finish in Dawson City on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Mackey took control of the race on the 150-mile run from Eagle to Dawson City. Mackey’s 23-hour run shattered the previous record by about five hours. William Kleedehn, a 10-time veteran who finished 8 minutes behind Mackey last year, also posted a record run of about 24 hours, something that gave him confidence as he quietly prepared to leave.
“I can tell you this: on the river run (from Eagle to Dawson), Lance’s team did not outrun my team. Not once,” Kleedehn said. “I just rested more than he did.”
Perhaps more than any other racer left in the field of 12, Kleedehn understands how fragile Mackey’s lead was leaving Dawson City. The Carcross, Yukon, musher faced a series of difficulties last year and ended up being proud of the second-place finish rather than disappointed by a narrow defeat.
“I lost my best lead dog early in the race,” he said. “Two of my other three lead dogs were in full-blown heat. Then, about 20 yards before the finish line last year, I had to change out my leader, Bandito, because he won’t run into crowds. All this made me eight minutes behind Lance, and finishing second to him did not bother me.”
The Quest’s front-runners were forced to think on the fly after Race Marshal Mike McCowan announced Friday—about 12 hours before the restart—that this year’s Quest will be rerouted and the finish line will be in Dawson following a 400-mile loop to Pelly Crossing and back.
The biggest change for mushers is that they must climb 4,002-foot King Solomon’s Dome twice. Worse is the fact that much of the section is through the Black Hills, a seemingly endless stretch teams now will navigate two times.
“That’s a lot of climbing,” said three-time Quest champion Hans Gatt, who left Dawson third at 5:03 a.m.
“The Quest has more hills than any other race in the world. But my dog team is looking really good.”
Mackey also expected his dogs to excel in the Black Hills, which look a lot like the terrain around his Kasilof home.
“They’re hoping to catch me on the hills,” Mackey said. “But my team trains for these very conditions, and I can almost guarantee you that I’m not going to get caught on the hills.”
Officials rerouted the trail because of low snow conditions in the Yukon south of Pelly Crossing. They were concerned for the safety of the dogs, who can suffer injuries while running over difficult trail.
The reroute forced officials to make other changes. They are making the Stewart River dog drop, which sits exactly halfway between Dawson and Pelly, a checkpoint, according to a release from officials. McCowan said a determination of where mushers take their final mandatory layover of eight hours won’t be made until teams reach Pelly today.
“Carmacks and Braeburn and McCabe, any of the Quest communities (left out), are going to be hurt,” Kleedehn said. “It is sad when something like this happens. But if there was another solution, it would have been used.”
Kleedehn said mushers have been told to expect good trail to Pelly.
“There are a few climbs,” he said. “The glaciation and the overflow on creeks aren’t too bad, but those things can change by the hour.”