DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Aiming to repeat Yukon Quest glory, defending champ Brent Sass left this halfway point leading the 1,000-mile race Friday a little before 12:30 a.m. local time on Friday, well rested and ready for another 500 miles.
Sass was whistling while making his final preparations to leave. He talked to each of his dogs while putting booties on their feet and hooking them to his sled.
Sass and his dogs seemed subdued during the readying process.
"This how I train 'em to be," Sass said. "When I say go, they go. They know there's no sense in getting excited yet."
But Sass and the dogs, with females Celia and Sound in lead as they have been all race, perked up when it was time to go.
"Hike! Alright! Let's go!" Sass shouted, and the dogs surged forward in their harnesses, hurtling the sled back onto the Yukon River.
Sass and his team had 36 hours to eat and catch up on sleep here at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, where teams set up at a quiet campground about a half-mile from Dawson's much busier riverfront. With his dogs nearby under a dark gray tent, Sass had slept in his own tent, its stove puffing out smoke while steady snowfall piled up and slid off the yellow walls.
From here, Sass and the other mushers go 99 miles to the Scroggie Creek checkpoint, the next of five more official stops before the finish in Whitehorse. Sass was followed by 2013 and 2014 Quest champion Allen Moore of Two Rivers, who left Dawson about two hours behind Sass at 2:19 a.m. Trailing Moore by 36 minutes was 2012 champ Hugh Neff of Tok. Matt Hall, the 24-year-old from Two Rivers, was back on the trail at 5 a.m., followed by Canadian Ed Hopkins at 7:29 a.m.
Earlier, the frontrunners had been in a trail report meeting with Canadian Ranger John Mitchell, who has traveled most of the Canada portions of Quest trail by snowmachine. Mitch, as he is known, and his fellow rangers with the Dawson Patrol Group ready the trail for the mushers and perform rescues, if needed.
"We'll see how it goes," Mitchell said. "We haven't had to go out and find anybody yet, so we're hoping to keep it that way."
Mitchell's trail report was detailed and took more than 30 minutes to deliver. The gist was that there was little snow along the route before the recent precipitation, and it is bumpy in spots. There are also areas where the rangers needed to replace the long wooden stakes used to mark the trail. That was because wolves were taking them, he said.
"It's not unusual. The pups like to play with them," Mitchell said. "You'll find them down the trail with teeth marks on them."
Along with the seasoned veterans in the meeting was the first rookie into Dawson, Norwegian adventurer and musher Tom Frode Johansen, who arrived a couple minutes before 7 a.m. Thursday in seventh place.
Asked how he felt to be the top rookie at this point, Johansen said he had not realized he was leading the other seven Quest rookies still in the race.
"I'm a little bit overwhelmed, because I had no expectation when it comes to where to be in the race, because I absolutely did not know it was happening," Johansen said. "This is a very positive thing for me. … I'm extremely happy about how things are going."
Johansen had to drop a dog earlier in the race, but his team was eating and behaving well. They were exceeding his expectations after he had to split his time this mushing season between training dogs and running his tour guiding business in Norway.
The race has not been without problems for Johansen, though. The treacherous jumble ice on the Yukon River broke bolts on his sled, and Johansen rigged it together with parts from his cooker. Later, he crashed into a tree, and a storage box at the back of the sled fell off, so he had to cut pieces of trees to tie it back on.
Johansen is no stranger to extreme environments: He took part in a 2006 dog mushing expedition to the North Pole.
"All the other elements in the race I'm quite prepared on. Snow, windy, difficulty seeing the trail and the climbing. All these things I've done. But the jumble ice I've never done," Johansen said. "You had to be a dancer, jump from runner to runner."
Despite the report of low snow farther down the trail, it has been snowing in Dawson and on the trail heading to it Wednesday and Thursday. The fresh powder slowed mushers and forced some to changes to plans. Seth Barnes, another Quest rookie, wanted to break up the 150 miles from Eagle to Dawson into three runs but ended up doing it in four to make it easier on his dogs.
"I just thought it was better for them with the conditions," Barnes said. "It's ankle to above ankle deep of fresh snow. Just soft, wet powder, and it's slow."