The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race served up mystery on both ends of the trail Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
At the front of the pack, GPS tracking problems left mushers and spectators uncertain of who was leading a three-man battle for the four ounces of gold awarded to the first musher to reach the halfway point in Dawson, Yukon.
At the back of the pack, a couple of hundred miles behind the frontrunners, a musher from Russia was making such slow progress with his team of thick-furred Chukchi dogs that race officials posted a Facebook update to let people know all was well.
"Michael Telpin is okay," it said. "A Quest snowmobiler just chatted with him. He has a relaxed pace, is camping at night & moving during the day, just easing on down the trail. He's feeling fine and the team is also in good shape. All the dogs are doing well although the temperatures may be a bit warm for his thickly coated traditional sled dogs."
Telpin reached Eagle at 5:58 p.m. Thursday -- a full two days after frontrunners Allen Moore, Lance Mackey and Hugh Neff left the checkpoint.
Ten minutes separated the leaders when they left Eagle on Tuesday night. As they neared Dawson on Wednesday night, only Neff's GPS tracker was working, leaving everyone wondering where Mackey and Moore were.
Even Moore didn't know where his rivals were when he led the way into Dawson at 11:32 p.m. AST Wednesday.
"You know, I thought (other mushers) would be here," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Moore, who placed sixth in his rookie run last year, claimed a 19-minute lead over four-time champion Lance Mackey and a 67-minute lead over Hugh Neff. Four ounces of placer gold -- worth about $7,000 -- will be his if he makes it to the Whitehorse finish line.
As the lead pack settled in for their mandatory 36-hour layovers in Dawson, Telpin was still 18 hours away from Eagle, with Dawson another couple of days away.
Telpin, 47, is a Native Chukchi who is driving a team of nine dogs indigenous to the Chokotka region. He operates a kennel of 30 animals that he uses in many aspects of his life.
"I am a marine mammal hunter and my dogs are Native Chukchi dogs that I use in my hunting -- they take me to the flow edge of the sea ice for walrus hunting as well as through tall grasses across the tundra fishing and traveling in the summertime," Telpin told the Quest.
The dogs are quite likely descendents of the world's first sled dogs, Telpin says in his bio on the Quest website. "The world's oldest bones of sled dogs have been found on my native land," he said.
Telpin is part of an online education program called Go North! Adventure Learning that teaches students about Beringia, a region that once stretched thousands of miles on either side of the Bering land bridge that once connected Alaska and Russia.
He is one of three Quest mushers who are part of the program; Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway reached Dawson at 9:01 a.m. Wednesday and Nikolay Ettyne of Russia scratched in Circle City on Tuesday.
Sebastian Schnuelle, the 2009 Quest champion who is serving as a volunteer this year as well as providing updates on his Facebook page, ran into Telpin earlier this week while snowmachining from Central to Circle City.
"... communicating with Telpin is difficult, as he speaks no English," Schnuelle wrote. "He has some really neat looking dogs, they seem tough as nails. His harnesses are homemade. His clothing is fur. A true step back in time. I would love to spend some time in his home country to learn his way of life."
Moore, Mackey and Neff will return to the trail today around noon -- Moore can leave Dawson at 11:32 a.m. AST, Mackey at 11:51 a.m. and Neff at 12:39 p.m. -- with teams that should be well-rested for the second half of the race.
Mackey, who won four straight Quests from 2005-08 and placed second in 2010, said he was eager for sleep -- although apparently he's had some pretty awesome hallucinations thanks to his sleep deprivation .
"I am so ready for a nap," he told CBC after reaching Dawson just before midnight Alaska time on Wednesday. "I haven't slept a total of three hours since we left the starting line and that takes its toll.
"I'm as tired as I've ever been at this point in the race. I've seen some funny (things) and heard some really cool stuff out there. Yeah, I've seen a giant toaster. I've seen a canoe sitting on a tree stump."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Yukon Quest Standings
10:30 p.m. Thursday
All Times AST
Into Dawson (mandatory 36-hour layover) — Allen Moore 11:32 p.m. Wednesday, Lance Mackey 11:51 p.m., Hugh Neff 12:39 a.m. Thursday, Jake Berkowitz 2:04 a.m., Brent Sass 4:24 a.m., Sonny Lindner 5:55 a.m., Joar Leifseth Ulsom 8:01 a.m., Abbie West 9:19 a.m., Kristy Berington 10:13 a.m., David Dalton 4:23 p.m.
Forty Mile hospitality spot — Kyla Durham 9:47 a.m. Thursday.
Out of Eagle — Paige Drobny 5:25 p.m. Wednesday, Gus Guenther 6:10 p.m. Wednesday, Trent Herbst 8:02 p.m. Wednesday, Yuka Honda 9:25 p.m. Wednesday, Brian Wilmshurst 3:41 a.m. Thursday, Misha Pedersen 4:27 a.m., Marcelle Fressineau 2:35 p.m.
Into Eagle — Michael Telpin 5:58 p.m. Thursday.
Scratched — Jason Weitzel, Mike Ellis, Nikolay Ettyne, Maren Bradley.
Withdrawn — Kurt Reich.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.