EAGLE — Mushers at the front of the pack separated themselves from the Yukon Quest field, negotiating a menacing stretch of jumble ice on the Yukon River.
Brent Sass made it through the nasty stretch and pulled into Circle at 4:48 a.m. Saturday behind 12 dogs, about 24 hours after second-place challenger Allen Moore left Eagle, some 160 miles back up the trail. By 9 a.m. Saturday, Moore was within about 30 miles of Circle and had opened a yawning gap on Hugh Neff and Ed Hopkins, who were running neck-and-neck for third place. Behind them was a gap of nearly 70 miles to the fifth-place musher.
The trip to Circle includes formidable obstacles. Quest officials said a 20-mile-long path through rugged Yukon River ice was particularly hazardous, and they offered a warning in bold type on the trail report.
"That's certainly not unusual for that part of the river, and it's been significantly worse over the years, but this is longer than we've had before," Race Marshal Doug Grilliot said.
Before leaving the previous checkpoint of Eagle late Thursday, Sass acknowledged that the race was his to lose but he remained wary of Moore and Neff, a pair of Quest champions.
Moore acknowledged that Sass' lead is "substantial" but said he remains hopeful that his well-rested team will be faster in the second half of the race. Sass has relied on a steady schedule of 100-mile runs to build his lead.
"We had this plan made before the race," said Moore, who left Eagle with a full 14-dog team. "We just hoped the rest will make a difference at the end."
Neff lost ground to them both on the run into Eagle, with the gap growing to nearly seven hours.
The Tok musher, who was down to eight dogs out of Eagle, acknowledged that he'd pushed his team too hard early in the race.
"I should have held back a little at the beginning," Neff said. "I've got to realize one of these years to take it easy and go a little slower."
Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom, an early contender, was down to eight dogs, too. Despite that, Ulsom said his dogs' performance improved as the weather warmed after a frigid start.
"It was a tough start, but they're getting better," Ulsom said.
Tagish, Yukon, musher Ed Hopkins took a pair of long runs into Eagle, separating himself from the mushers behind him.
Now that he's among the leaders, the laid-back musher said he'll keep chasing the leaders but probably wouldn't change his strategy.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "It seems to be working pretty well."