The freight train that is the dog team of two-time defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Lance Mackey powered its way to victory once again on Monday.
Neither minus 50 cold, nor soft-and-sugary trail, nor fresh snow slowed the dogs of the Fairbanks cancer survivor in his quest for a second win in the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race.
Less than 54 hours after leaving Wolverine Lodge on Lake Louise, Mackey and his team were back there late Monday afternoon. Behind him was a roughly 300-mile loop that took mushers east along the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, north along the Richardson Highway to Gakona, northeast along the Tok Cutoff to Chistochina, and then north toward the Alaska Range to loop along the foothills back to Lake Louise.
Forty-three minutes behind Mackey was Hans Gatt of Atlin, British Columbia, with young Brent Sass of Fairbanks finishing third in 54:52.
Mackey's win was good for the victor's $4,500 slice of the $18,000 Copper Basin purse.
It was on the climb up toward the Alaska Range on the run out of Chistochina, about a third of the way into the race, that Mackey grabbed control of this race. He jumped out of the checkpoint ahead of Tom Lesatz from Two Rivers and never looked back.
Lesatz, the training partner of Iditarod veteran Jessica Hendricks, chased Mackey into the foothills of the mountains, but couldn't catch him and dropped from the race at Paxson, the next checkpoint.
"I had a few sore dogs,'' Lesatz said.
With Hendricks slated to run their team in both the Klondike 300 Sled Dog Race this weekend in the Susitna Valley and the Tustumena 200 a week later on the Kenai Peninsula, he thought it best to give the animals some rest.
Mackey has not only won back-to-back Iditarods, he has done it twice coming off victories in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Before Mackey completed the first Iditarod-Quest double in 2007, the feat was considered impossible.
The string of doubles should end this year, because Mackey is not expected to defend his title in the Quest. He has entered the race, but said he is unlikely to run because of a scheduling conflict.
The Quest is notorious for the sort of vicious cold that descended on the start of the Copper Basin this year.
Though no stranger to 50-below temperatures, Lesatz confessed he had some second thoughts about starting on Saturday morning.
"You wake up wondering, 'Do I really have to do this?' '' he said.
One dog driver of note decided before the race began it wasn't worth it. Two-time Iditarod runner-up Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof pulled out of the Copper Basin race, citing the temperatures.
Lesatz, Mackey and 25 others, however, soldiered on, and things did get better.
"It warmed up pretty good," Lesatz said.
By the time the race reached the tiny outpost of Chistochina, where the river of the same name meets the mighty Copper River, Lesatz said the temperature was up to a balmy minus 20.
"When we were going over the summit (near the Gakona Glacier in the Alaska Range),'' he added, "it was really warm.''
"Really warm'' would qualify as a temperature somewhere around zero, which isn't all that warm unless you've been locked in a 50-below deep freeze for a week or more.
At Wolverine Lodge, even Tree Farmer, a veteran of extreme Alaska winters, was welcoming the moderating weather as the Copper Basin race wound toward its Monday finish.
"It started warming up (Sunday night),'' he said. "When I looked out around 6 or 7, it was just under 30 below. By about 9, we were getting to 20 below.''
By midday Monday, it was finally above zero for the first time in days.
Out on the trail, though, the cold had taken its toll. Extreme temperatures slow everything down.
Sled runners drag more slowly on dry, rough, 50-below-zero cold. Mushers spend more time changing dog booties to avoid injuries. Cold hands must be kept in mittens to protect them from frostbite, then removed to do simple tasks like unclipping dogs from ganglines.
Mackey's finishing time Monday was more than two hours slower than that of 2008 Copper Basin winner Allen Moore from Two Rivers, and more than six hours off the race record set by Canadian musher William Kleedehn in 2004.
Kleedehn, a Carcross, Yukon, musher, chose not to run the Copper Basin this year, but compatriot Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, the previous course record holder, put pressure on Mackey.
The three-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Gatt closed to within 24 minutes at the penultimate checkpoint of Sourdough along the Gulkana River, but got no closer.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.