EAGLE SUMMIT — Mushers pay a toll to cross over the mountains here. Eagle Summit accepts plastic.
Curly shavings of sled runners near sharp rocks along the trail made for colorful evidence of a bumpy ride in the Summit Quest 300 sled dog race this week. One racer who passed the spot in top-five position lost an entire yellow runner on the trail Sunday.
Teams navigated this stretch only after a miles-long climb to the 3,685-foot high point of the 300-mile race course. Where the Summit Quest trail wasn’t a rocky rumble, it scratched across hardened and unforgiving snow here. Teams then plunge down the backside of the alpine pass, a wild ride for a dog driver.
Mushers earn their miles, even on a beautiful day, in one of the lesser-known but fiercest sled dog races in Alaska.
“I joke that this is the only qualifier that maybe should have a qualifier,” race marshal Doug Grilliot said before the race began.
Eighteen teams started the race Saturday in Two Rivers. Twelve of the teams are rookies, some of whom are looking to prove worthy for distance mushing’s major leagues. The race, called the Yukon Quest 300 until this year, is a qualifier for both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.
Grilliot said he’s keeping a close eye on the less-experienced competitors.
“I try to put a little fear into them at these meetings, because this is a very serious dog race …” he said. “If this is your very first race, we’re going to be looking at you pretty close, because we don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
Eagle Summit isn’t the only big climb. To get that far, racers must also cross over 3,640-foot Rosebud Summit along the trail. But the peaks and rocks are just some of the ways the Summit Quest can batter a musher. Racers might also face the notorious wind and severe cold that gives the Yukon Quest its reputation as the toughest distance sled dog race. The Summit Quest uses the same trail as the longer Quest between Two Rivers and Circle.
At the start on a bright day in Two Rivers, several energized rookies described how they had tried and failed in years prior as they packed their sleds and hooked up their teams in a parking lot along Chena Hot Springs Road.
Leigh Strehlow Pagel of Fairbanks was only about 50 miles from the finish line last year when she ran into overflow on Birch Creek between Central and Circle, she said. At the time, Pagel tried to walk one dog across the water, but soon that dog was swimming. “And I’m waist deep in water, and I’m like ‘What the heck am I doing? This isn’t worth it,’” she said.
Pagel said she has a small kennel and a 2-year-old daughter, so she isn’t sure a 1,000-mile race is in her future But she feels that she let her dogs down by not getting to the finish line last year. She pulled her No. 12 bib over her green parka as she got set to try again.
“It’s definitely been on my mind. I wanted to come back,” she said. “The dogs worked really hard.”
Tabitha Hughes, from Fox, said she made it about 100 miles last year before her confusing trail markers put her several hours off course, she said. The key is returning with an upbeat attitude. Her team would sense it if she felt otherwise, she said.
“The dogs, they’re in a good mood. They’re chipper and they’re positive. This game is all about being positive,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and related border crossing issues led to the Yukon Quest being canceled this year. Grilliot said the Summit Quest race start was moved from Fairbanks to Two Rivers to in part to discourage fans from gathering during the pandemic.
This year’s race is more “old school,” he said. Mushers will make do with fewer amenities and indoor spaces.
“This is your perfect opportunity to practice your camp and your cooking,” he said he advised mushers. “Instead of having your food prepared for you and handed to you, see what’s going to work for you. See what you want to eat at 2 in the morning when it’s 30 below.”
A small crowd gathered to watch them leave from outside the Pleasant Valley Store on Saturday, despite the effort to dissuade it. Mushers started their run right from their parking spots, which were closed to fans.
Jodi Bailey of Chatanika danced with friends by her dog truck before she set out first. She expected the joys of the sport would soon supplant her anxiety.
“Super, super nervous, but I know I should know better,” Bailey said.
“There’s people who go to religious retreats in the mountains for like six months to try to get to the place where I can get in about a 100 miles,” she said.
A state of Zen wasn’t exactly Deke Naaktgeboren’s experience on the run from Two Rivers to Mile 101, a race checkpoint along the Steese Highway. On Sunday morning, exhaust from running dog trucks and steam from cookers caught the day’s first sun in the minus-20 degree air.
At the peak of Rosebud Summit hours earlier, Naaktgeboren’s dogs began to descend about 100 yards off the trail. He bashed into rocks and launched off snowdrifts as he tried to maintain control. He feared busting his sled or, even worse, losing his team.
“That stretch, like the last 40 miles, is probably one of the toughest stretches in all of dog mushing,” he said of the Rosebud Summit traverse.
As other teams settled into the checkpoint around him, Naaktgeboren said all mushers must be a little bit crazy to do this. On Monday, he said his enthusiasm wasn’t dimmed by the moment he called one of the scariest of his mushing career so far.
“I love this trail so much. The harder it is, the more fun I think I have, and I think the dogs enjoy it too,” he said.
A few parking spots away, Lauro Eklund said he had no complaints either. In fact, he had two things to be happy about. He got his cooker lit after a little difficulty, and his feet were dry. Eklund, from Two Rivers, is another rookie who has attempted the race before.
“Last year I froze my toes and had to scratch. So I’d like just to finish it without freezing any toes. That’s my main goal.”
Eklund’s father, Neil Eklund, is a two-time Iditarod finisher. It’s long been his dream to run it himself, he said. That might be possible in two years if he finishes qualifying races before then, he said.
“I just want to finish this race and kind of get that monkey off,” he said.
Pagel, who pulled into Mile 101 with her fur ruff frosted in ice, parked her team and settled in for a five-hour stop. She looked forward to some soup, a nap and later, a daytime view from Eagle Summit. This trail can be intimidating and intense, but that doesn’t ice over the magic moments dog mushing provides, she said.
“That’s like the reward, right?” she said. ”You got to enjoy the trails and where they take you.”
Four teams separated themselves from the rest of the field by the time the front-runners reached Eagle Summit. On the flat-calm day, mushers could occasionally be heard cheerleading their dogs up the steep pitch as they pedaled and pushed from the sled up the long hill.
“Almost there,” said musher Benjamin Good, a race veteran from North Pole, the fifth musher to pass the spot.
On the brisk descent, teams dipped toward sunlit ridges and shadowy creek drainages below as they headed toward Central. From there, teams spend much of the rest of the race on serpentine Birch Creek as they head into Circle, a town on the Yukon River at northeastern end of the Steese Highway. The Summit Quest race trail doubles back from there to the finish line at Central.
Checker Katie Megahee waited near the bonfire outside the Central Corner roadhouse Monday evening. She occasionally looked for race updates on her phone, but internet connectivity was limited and there was no cellphone coverage in town.
On Sunday night, she estimates the temperature dipped below minus 30 as mushers came and went. She caught a little sleep in her truck even though she had a bed, so she could keep an eye out for musher headlamps that occasionally appeared in the dark.
“I don’t like not being able to see what’s happening,” said the second-year volunteer. Asked if she was a musher herself, Megahee said “Not yet.”
A few dozen handlers and volunteers gathered near the straw bales that marked the race finish line Monday evening. They watched Dan Kaduce approach from the south on Circle Hot Springs Road at 7:02 p.m. with nine dogs in harness. Kaduce took the lead in the race’s first 100 miles, and gave it up only once, he said, to let Hugh Neff leave a checkpoint first.
Kaduce, who lives along the Steese Highway at Chatanika, is a veteran of both the 1,000-mile Quest and two Iditarods and has won “a bunch” of 200- and 300-mile races, he said. But this win was special, he said.
“This would definitely be the one I would call the best, the crown jewel to this point,” he said.
Kaduce was led to victory by Titan and Phoenix, from his “things shot into space” themed litter. All his dogs seemed to want it this year, he said, including Manson, Dahmer and Holmes from his “psychopath” litter.
“They pretty much killed it,” he said.
Kaduce plans to race in Iditarod, which begins March 7 in Deshka Landing.
Naaktgeboren followed Kaduce into Central. His second place finish is also a career highlight, he said.
“Mission accomplished,” he said.
Another musher arrived by 8 p.m., but from the opposite direction. Hughes, from Fox, had yet to begin the 163-mile out and back portion of the race from Central to Circle. Things were not going quite like she had sketched out on paper before the race, she said. She said she would use her rest to decide whether to continue or scratch.
“There’s definitely some tough challenges on this trail,” Hughes said. “You can read about it in a book. You can talk to somebody. But until you’re actually on the trail, you have zero idea of what goes on.”