As the sun set in the Canadian Yukon Saturday night, frontrunning Two Rivers musher Allen Moore pressed on into the twilight, aiming to forge a gap between him and his pursuers in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
On Saturday, GPS tracking devices showed Moore with roughly a 15-mile lead over second-place Lance Mackey in the middle of a grueling 200-mile run from Dawson to Pelly Crossing, population 300.
Early race leader Brent Sass of Fairbanks was well back in sixth place but still confident that a strong second half might allow him to improve upon his best Quest finish of fourth place last year. Sass started with 14 dogs in Fairbanks a week ago and left Dawson 540 miles later with the same crew. Nobody had more pulling power. Mackey, in fact, was down to just nine animals, having dropped five dogs so far. Sass hopes his 14 dogs provide an edge on the next section of trail that includes a climb over 4,002-foot Solomon's Dome and the strength-sapping Black Hills closer to Pelly Crossing.
"Brent has finished most of his previous Quests with eight or even six dogs," said Quest commentator and former champion Sebastian Schnulle on his Facebook page. "It is obvious that he changed some things in his training program, to overcome that hurdle. Great to see. He was amped up (isn't he always?) and pumping his fist when he left the campground in Dawson City."
Working against Sass were unseasonably warm temperatures, with daytime highs reaching the upper 20s. That's at least 50 degrees warmer than the sub-zero temperatures he's been training in much of the winter.
"To go from that to really warm -- it is a concern," Sass, 31, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "I don't know how I'm going to deal with that. I guess I'll just watch the dogs and if they have to stop, then we'll stop for a little while."
So far, the dogs are doing well. The human, however, has stumbled. Coming into Dawson, Sass pulled out his sleeping bag during a rest stop, something he usually tries to avoid. "The reason I never get in my sleeping bag is because every time I get into it I think I'm going to oversleep," he told the News-Miner. "And I did."
A planned six-hour break became eight hours. But Sass allowed that extra rest could be needed in the upcoming hills.
Sass is a former University of Alaska Fairbanks nordic ski racer from Minnesota who learned dog mushing from the late great Iditarod champion Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson, the 1988 Quest victor. With five Quests behind him, Sass is fast becoming a veteran himself.
"I am a dreamer who makes his dreams come true," he said on the Yukon Quest website. "Tons of people dream but not very many people actually go out and make their dreams happen. Not a day goes by that I do not move forward toward accomplishing one of my many goals.
"I bring this same mentality to mushing. I feel like I want it more than anybody else and will do whatever it takes to be the best."
Typically, the Quest trail is better groomed in the Canadian section of the race, and this year may be no exception. Heavy snowfall this winter has helped make it smooth.
"It's not quite a sprint race track," Canadian Ranger trail coordinator John Mitchell told the News-Miner. "But it's pretty good."
Hugh Neff of Tok was running third Saturday, an hour behind Mackey out of the Scroggie Creek Dog Drop. Young Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake was four hours behind Neff, with Sass 36 minutes behind Berkowitz.
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