As the top contenders in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race head back onto the trail, they are preparing for a rough go of it.
The trail is slow, snowy and rough according to race officials. Snow storms in the region have buried the trail in some parts, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, undoing weeks of trail breaking by Canadian Rangers. As much as 3 feet of snow has fallen over the last three days, creating a fresh set of challenges for the front-of-pack mushers, on the move and facing the notorious, grueling back stretch of Quest trail toward Alaska.
"In 35 years of running the (Yukon) river, this is the toughest trail we've ever had to break," Canadian Ranger Sgt. John Mitchell told the News-Miner.
Regardless, that wasn't enough to stop Hugh Neff and Allen Moore from making their early morning departures Thursday. It's a bit of deja vu for Quest race fans, who watched Neff and Moore jockey for the lead in 2012.
Last year, Neff ended up nipping Moore by 26 seconds to claim his first 1,000-mile race victory in a sport known for minutes and hours between finishers -- not seconds.
With roughly 500 miles to go, the two racers left within hours of each other. By mid-day that lead had shrunk slightly, with Moore traveling about 10 miles behind Neff, or about two hours behind. Approximately three hours back, and in third place, was Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz, followed by Brent Sass of Fairbanks. Check out the latest race standings.
Tok's Neff has established a blistering pace, but don't count out the younger mushers: Sebastian Schunelle, who won the Quest in 2009 and currently serves as a race judge, said that Neff was known to run his team hard, early, only to slow considerably between Dawson and Fairbanks.
"Time will tell, if history will repeat itself and if Jake will be able to reel in the front runners in the second half of the race," Schunelle wrote. "Then again, one ugly run, one dog in a bag at the beginning of a long run, can change things dramatically, for either musher."
Neff knows that all too well. In 2011, despite leading for almost 800 miles, his team stalled on the notoriously steep and challenging Eagle Summit. Neff was forced to withdraw from the race after the death of his dog, Geronimo. He swore he would never compete the Whitehorse to Fairbanks run again, saying the route was too dangerous for teams. But Neff changed his tune this year, coming back to defend his title and conquer his own demons on the summit.
Racers are headed toward Eagle now, the first checkpoint on the Alaska half of the trail. Due to trail conditions, officials announced earlier this week that mushers would not climb 3,420-foot American Summit, cutting 50 miles from the trail. Another four hours were added to the traditionally 36-hour mandatory layover in Dawson to compensate for the shorter route.
It's just one element in a challenging series of events for this year's Yukon Quest. On Thursday, four-time champion Lance Mackey withdrew from the race after dropping half of his team before Dawson. It was the first time the veteran dog-driver had ever scratched from the Quest.
The race also reported its first dog death. Officials said that Berkowitz's dog, General, died Thursday afternoon after being dropped in Dawson. General was en route to Whitehorse with a race veterinarian, according to the brief statement.
Head Veterinarian Dr. Kathleen McGill said a necropsy will be conducted. The race will release more information once details are confirmed.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com