DAWSON CITY — For the third straight year, Brent Sass is the first Yukon Quest musher to reach the Klondike.
The defending champion arrived in Dawson City at 11:21 a.m AST Wednesday and will claim four ounces of Dawson City placer gold if he reaches the finish line in Whitehorse. Four ounces of gold is currently valued at nearly $4,800.
The Dawson checkpoint marks the halfway point of the 1,000-mile sled dog race,which started Saturday in Fairbanks, and is the first official stop on the Canadian side of the border. It's a long 150-mile haul from the previous checkpoint of Eagle, a trip that took Sass nearly 27 hours.
Sass and his team of dogs — still 14 strong — will rest here for a mandatory 36 hours. He arrived with one dog — Braeburn — riding comfortably in the sled due to fatigue.
Two-time champion Allen Moore of Two Rivers followed nearly two hours later, also with 14 dogs, and Hugh Neff of Tok arrived third, at 2:55 p.m., just 36 minutes behind Moore.
While eager fans watched, Sass had his belongings checked by race officials before presenting his passport to a Canadian customs officer.
On a long, rugged run from from Eagle, mushers face both American Summit — a 3,240-foot mountain — and another steep detour off the Yukon River to the Top of the World Highway.
Impassable ice jams between the mouth of the Fortymile River and Dawson City necessitated a re-route to the Top of the World Highway, resulting in an additional 2,500-foot climb.
Sass said it was difficult.
"My legs hurt really bad right now, I can tell you that," the 36-year-old Eureka musher told reporters gathered around him at the checkpoint. "Instead of a flat river, we had to go over some hills. I think it probably got to my head a little bit, which probably got to the dogs? heads a little bit."
Temperatures were just above zero when Sass arrived in Dawson City. And while he said that reaching the halfway point first is significant, there?s still a lot of trail ahead.
Two years ago, Sass failed to claim his gold after suffering a race-ending concussion near Braeburn. The gold instead went to that year's winner, Allen Moore, who was the second to reach Dawson City in 2014.
"It?s awesome, but the finish line is still in Whitehorse," Sass said. "But it means the dogs are performing good. … It?s been an interesting race for sure. Nothing like last year?s race, so that?s why I?m pretty happy to be here."
Looking tired but still sporting a smile, Sass said his dogs struggled with a stomach bug early in the race.
"The stress of the race got to them and they were fairly sick for the first three or four days," he said. "Last year, I?d throw anything at them and they?d eat it like alligators. This year I had to give them a buffet of food every single meal. … It just took me a lot longer."
Sass was the first musher to cross the Canadian border late Tuesday night.
Rising star Matt Hall is in fourth place, according to race trackers, followed by Yukon musher Ed Hopkins, who's making a push for the front. The Tagish Lake resident is currently the top Canadian.
Race marshal Doug Grilliot said the first half of the trail was in tip-top shape.
"We?ve been fortunate this year on the Alaska side and so far down to Dawson," he said this morning. "The trail was just in incredibly good shape."
The Top of the World Highway was needed, he added.
"It was just a necessity. We?re really fortunate that we had the option of going down that road this year.".
A total of 23 mushers — including five Yukoners — started the race. One has scratched — J. Jay Levy of Durham, North Carolina, dropped out of the race Sunday.