AD Main Menu

Yukon Quest: Defending champion grabs 2-hour lead at Dawson

Alaska Dispatch

A scorching first half of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race paused in the gold rush outpost Dawson City Tuesday afternoon as leaders reached the 1,000-mile race’s halfway point.

Defending champion Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, led the field into the historic town at 1:10 p.m. local time. Dawson, with an estimated population of 1,319, is the biggest town mushers reach during the race, which leads through some of the most desolate and remote terrain sections of Canada and Alaska.

Neff -- the 2012 defending champion -- was followed into the Dawson by 2012 runner-up Allen Moore two hours later. Last year the two dueled to the finish, with Neff edging out Moore by only 26 seconds.

Two are well ahead of the nearest competition, which includes 2012 Rookie of the Year Jake Berkowitz, perennial contender Brent Sass and rookie Scott Smith. In Dawson, mushers take a mandatory 36 hour layover before heading toward the Eagle, the first checkpoint on the Alaska side of the race, which is considered to be the more challenging section.

Neff will collect four ounces of placer gold -- worth an estimated $6,400 -- if he can make it to the finish in Fairbanks. The gold is only awarded to the first musher into Dawson who also completes the entire race.

'Extreme' speed

"It is a real eye-opener how far the race is spread out," former Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle noted on his blog following the race. "This year seems extreme. Hugh Neff (is) once again setting a blistering pace."

But Schnuelle warns against reading too much into Neff's early display of speed lead. 

"Personally, I’d keep a close eye on Jake Berkowitz, running a full string of 14 powerful dogs. He is executing a run-rest schedule which has worked well for myself in the past. In all of the three Quests I have run going north (2007, 2009, 2011), Hugh was far ahead of myself into Dawson City -- sometimes more than six hours. Yet I always caught him once we got off the Yukon River in Circle (Alaska).

"I ... predict the same thing will happen. I am not sure if it was wise of Allen Moore to chase Hugh as hard as he has been doing, although in comparison Allen has rested his dogs quite a few hours more than Hugh has."

Eagle Summit deja vu

Two years ago, Neff led for almost 800 miles before his dog team stalled on the challenging Eagle Summit, a famously steep pitch that comes during the second half of this year's race. He struggled on the summit for almost a day before withdrawing from the race following the death of a dog in his team. Afterwards, Neff swore he’d never again compete in the Quest during odd numbered years (the years the race, which alternates starts between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, begins in Canada). But Neff found redemption in winning last year’s race and decided to run again this year -- both as defending champion and in honor of Geronimo, the dog he lost in 2011.

Schnuelle said the Quest changes character once the racers leave Dawson following their 36-hour rest and head for Alaska, and he expects some of them to attempt the 105-mile run from Dawson to Eagle, Alaska, just past the border in one long push. A mandatory four-hour rest awaits all the mushers in Eagle, a town of fewer than 100 residents on the Yukon River beside the U.S.-Canada border.

"In 2009," wrote Schnuelle on his race blog, "Hans Gatt and myself were sitting in Eagle and were discussing our race strategies. Hugh had left more than eight hours ahead of us, and Hans was convinced we would see him before Two Rivers (Alaska, nearer the finish line). At the time, I had some doubts. Eight hours seemed like an eternity to me. Hans proved to be right. I passed Hugh going up Eagle Summit. Time will tell if history will repeat itself and if Jake will be able to reel in the frontrunners in the second half of the race.”

Multimedia