As they duel their way across Alaska’s Interior, Hugh Neff and Allen Moore appear to be playing several games — leapfrog, cat-and-moose, chess — as they mush toward the finish line of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Late Saturday night, after Neff led the way into the Central checkpoint, there was something else to consider: Mind games.
Neff, the defending champion, is 118 miles away from Fairbanks in the 950-mile race that started a week ago Saturday in Whitehorse. When he leaves Central, he will confront a ghost — Eagle Summit, the 3,685-foot mountain pass that drove him out of the 2011 race.
That year, he owned a seemingly insurmountable lead at Central but had to withdraw from the race after his team stalled on Eagle Summit during a wicked storm. One of his dogs died during the ordeal.
“It’s just a hill,” Neff said Saturday night, according to a post on the race’s Facebook page. “But I have a lot of history with it.
“Yeah, I’m nervous.”
Neff reached Central at 10:27 p.m. Saturday. Moore was still on the trail, maybe three miles behind him.
The men traded the lead twice since leaving Eagle, the first checkpoint in Alaska. First Neff led, then Moore, then Neff again. Neff reclaimed the lead in Circle City, where the musher from Tok arrived three minutes after Moore but left two hours ahead of him.
In Eagle, where mushers must take a four-hour layover, both men told Fairbanks radio station KUAC that they planned to keep things close by following similar rest-run schedules.
Whether they meant it or not remains to be seen.
“We did this last year about every checkpoint: ‘I won’t leave for five hours, if you don’t leave,’ ’’ Moore told KUAC’s Emily Schwing. “So then it will be a race to the finish, I guess, if that’s the way it is.”
Said Neff: “We’ve been doing this for so long you know that neither one of us is gonna leave the other guy in the dust. So we’re just gonna keep moving down the trail and teasing each other and try to figure things out.”
But they can’t get too caught up in their duel. Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake and Brent Sass of Eureka aren’t far back, and although they appear to be engaged in a duel for third place, they are poised to pounce if given an opening.
While in Eagle on Friday, Neff told KUAC that the trail out of Dawson wasn’t as gnarly as feared — there were reports of deep snow and rough trail — but interesting all the same. Two hours outside of Dawson City, Neff drove his team into a herd of caribou.
“All of a sudden there’s holes in the trail everywhere and my dog team shoots off like a rocket,” he told Schwing. “Literally for an hour straight it felt like I was in an earthquake. Half the team was trying to jump off the trail and go after the caribou.”
A dog named Archie had to be dropped in Eagle with a sore shoulder — he stepped in a posthole left by the caribou.
Moore missed the caribou, but kept Neff within his sights.
“I’m pushing him the whole time to wear his dogs down,” he told KUAC during his layover in Eagle. “To me, he’s playing into my trap even though he thinks just because he’s ahead, he’s in the lead.”
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.