CARMACKS, Yukon — Brent Sass's sled dogs trotted off the Yukon River under a starry sky and faint aurora early Sunday, their feet moving in unison, fur frosted like the defending Yukon Quest champion's scruffy beard.
Sass, of Eureka, decided to march through this checkpoint, retaking the lead in the 1,000-mile race heading into the final 177 miles. He pulled in at 3:50 a.m. and stayed only 12 minutes to load up on supplies.
His friend and fellow Quest champ Hugh Neff had arrived in Carmacks first at 1:30 a.m. and opted to rest a couple hours.
Neff was awake and putting booties on his dogs as Sass marched past with a pot full of water, about to leave.
"You ready to rock 'n' roll, buddy?" Sass asked Neff.
"Yeah," Neff grumbled.
Neff leading Saturday
Earlier, upon his arrival at 1:30 a.m., Neff had been his usual comical self, despite having not gotten any significant rest in the previous 15 hours. The Tok musher joked with race volunteers as if he was a customs agent, like those that had checked his passport days earlier in Dawson City.
"I'm going to need to see some ID," Neff told the volunteers. "What country are you from?"
At that point, Neff had been in the lead since Saturday afternoon, when he slipped past fellow Quest champion Allen Moore in Pelly Crossing, 73 trail miles from here, while Moore rested about four hours. Neff stayed in Pelly only a little more than an hour, long enough to feed his dogs some fish snacks, grab supplies and change his socks.
In Carmacks later, Neff described his dogs as "pumped."
"I'm just enjoying the moment. Stuff like this doesn't happen every day," Neff said. "I've been doing this for 16 Quests, and (it's) the first time I've ever been in this situation. I mean, I came from behind to win, but I've never actually been up in front leading with somebody chasing my butt."
That was intimidating, Neff said.
"I'd rather be the predator than the prey," he said. "To have a guy like Allen behind me, definitely very intimidating."
Moore got to Carmacks at 3:09 a.m. and, like Neff had just done, set to work bedding down his team and feeding them.
"I like coming in this time of night. There's nobody," Moore said. "In the day, there's people, dogs."
Moore stood watching about 30 minutes later as Sass jogged to grab three drop bags that he lugged back to his sled. Then Moore went inside to sleep.
Dogs and musher get sick
Earlier in the race, Sass's Wild and Free Mushing dogs had been sick off and on since the race started more than a week ago. Sass caught a similar bug that caused him to not retain any of the food he had eaten for the previous two days, except for a bowl of soup and some bread.
The dogs seemed to finally be feeling better by Carmacks, even if Sass's stomach and throat were not, he said.
"I've been standing on the runners. I hardly had to do anything," Sass said. "I've just been trying to hang on, they've been doing such a good job. ... The dogs are in really good spirits, and that's helping me forget about my ailment.
"These guys have been sick the entire time, and they've been frickin' pouring their hearts into it, so it's time for me."
Sass had female leaders Celia and Sound in front still where they had been most, if not all, of the race.
"OK, girls, same thing we've been doing," he told the dogs. "Alright guys, you ready? Let's do it."
Sass pulled out of Carmacks as Neff finished readying his team.
A few minutes later, Neff gave the dogs his command to stand and hold the gang line out.
"Allllllright," he said in a low voice, and the dogs stood. "That's what I like to see. You want to go hunt Wild and Free?"
Neff trailed Sass out of the checkpoint by only 13 minutes.
Casey Grove is a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter.