Rough sledding ushered the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race into Alaska on Thursday.
The day began with disappointing news — four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, down to seven dogs, scratched in Dawson City, Yukon. Mackey, one of the sport’s greatest champions, had been dropping dogs from almost the start of the 950-mile race and was nearly two days behind the leaders.
By the afternoon, things had turned grim. Race officials announced that a dog died after Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz dropped it in Dawson City.
The dog, General, was en route to Whitehorse with a race veterinarian when it died, race marshal Doug Grilliot said in a brief online announcement. No other details were provided.
General is the third sled dog to die in races in the last week, and the first to die in this year’s Quest. Two dogs died last weekend in the Tustumena 200 after developing pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs.
Berkowitz was in third place when he left Dawson with a team of 13 dogs Thursday at 11:10 a.m. AST. He had been running a full team of 14 until he decided to leave General in Dawson City. He was seven hours behind race leader Hugh Neff of Tok and five hours behind Allen Moore of Two Rivers.
By 10 p.m. Thursday, Neff and Moore were both in Eagle, the first checkpoint once the race reaches Alaska.
Neff got there at 9:20 p.m. and Moore at 9:59 p.m. Moore gained about 80 minutes on Neff during the run, which is usually about 150 miles but this year is about 100 — the trail was rerouted earlier this week to eliminate 3,420-foot American Summit, parts of which are impassable.
Mushers were told to expect fresh, deep snow as they follow the Yukon River into Alaska. A Canadian Ranger told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that trail conditions out of Dawson are “terrible.”
“In 35 years of running the river, this is the toughest trail we’ve ever had to break,” Ranger Sgt. John Mitchell said.
He said a series of recent snowstorms left as much as three feet of snow on the once hard-packed trail. Mushers who want to camp off the Yukon River will need snowshoes, Mitchell told the News-Miner.
All mushers must spend 40 hours in Dawson City before returning to the trail. Neff left at 4:10 a.m. Thursday and Moore, who lost to Neff by 26 seconds last year, followed at 6:11 a.m.
Moore’s layover officially ended at 6:09, but his departure was delayed by a minute or two because he forgot his booties. “Remember, last year came down to 26 seconds,” Moore said with a laugh as his handler raced to get them, according to a report on the Quest website.
Mackey pulled into the historical gold rush town almost two hours later at 7:40 a.m. and promptly scratched.
Mackey, a cancer survivor who is one of mushing’s most popular and inspiring racers, electrified Alaska in 2007-08 with his unprecedented mushing double — wins in the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, something he pulled off in two consecutive years. He won four Quest titles from 2005-08 and four Iditarod titles from 2007-10.
But he was never in contention this year.
“Apparently I’m gonna have as many bad years in a row as I had good years in a row,” Mackey told KUAC radio reporter Emily Schwing.
Mackey dropped four dogs in Carmacks, 200 miles into the race. He dropped another one at Pelly Crossing and two more at Scroggie Creek. He spent nearly 15 hours at Scroggie Creek before making the 99-mile run to Dawson City with seven dogs. A team must have six dogs in harness at the finish line or it will be disqualified.
Mackey told KUAC that his dogs stopped eating and drinking early in the race, which started Saturday in Whitehorse.
“I pride myself on the way they look, so if they don’t look to me like I want ’em to look, I’m gonna leave ’em and dammit, leaving four at a time is hard thing to do but it was the best thing,” he told Schwing. “I wish I had answers.”
Mackey is entered in next month’s Iditarod and told KUAC he has no plans for retiring. But he might take a break from the Quest.
“I can only get beat down so many times before I gotta take a little breather here,” Mackey said.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.