DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Middle-of-the-pack Yukon Quest mushers and their sled dogs battled blizzards and slogged through deep, fresh snow on their way here Thursday and Friday, testing teams and forcing another musher to scratch.
Add a moose that charged Torsten Kohnert's team, and the 150 miles from Eagle to the 1,000-mile race's halfway point have been the toughest so far.
The frontrunners missed the worst of the recent snowstorms. Defending champ and race leader Brent Sass of Eureka pulled out of Dawson City at 11:23 p.m. AST Thursday after a mandatory 36-hour layover. Two Rivers musher Allen Moore, the Quest's winner in 2013 and 2014, left about two hours later, and Tok musher Hugh Neff, the 2012 champ, departed about 30 minutes after Moore, at 1:55 a.m. AST.
Rounding out the top five out of Dawson on Friday were Matt Hall, another Two Rivers musher originally from Eagle, and Ed Hopkins, the top Canadian.
There's a gap of 10 hours between Hopkins and sixth-place Kohnert, who left Dawson at 4:44 p.m. AST Friday.
Kohnert, a Quest veteran from Sweden, avoided catastrophe and an angry moose near the Fortymile River.
"A big bull charged right for the dogs, went by the whole team, I could just have reached and touched him," Kohnert told reporters after arriving in Dawson early Thursday morning. "I yelled at him and then he came towards me and by just a foot passed by the sled, so it was a pretty good wake up call."
Veteran Ontario musher Hank DeBruin called it quits after leaving Eagle the day before and mushing up 3,420-foot American Summit, where he encountered snowdrifts, two feet of powder and blowing snow that robbed him of visibility, said his wife, Tanya McCready. DeBruin eventually turned his team around and headed back to Eagle.
"He said it was so bad, he couldn't see where he was going," McCready said. "He was breaking trail in front of the dogs for two miles, and he said it just kept getting worse."
Healy musher Andrew Pace, a Quest rookie, spent hours hunkering down in a blizzard and struggling to find a capable lead dog in his team. Pace's wife and kennel partner, Quest veteran Kristin Knight Pace, said he had already dropped their two main leaders — Norton at the Mile 101 checkpoint, and Solo in Eagle.
"He said he tried every single dog in lead," she said. "It was pretty apparent that nobody was willing to continue into a whiteout without some leader that was going to drive them through it. So he just hung out and waited for the next person."
That person turned out to be 19-year-old rookie Laura Neese of Michigan.
"He woke up and saw a light in the distance," Kristin said. "She came up, and he said, 'Hey, I have a bunch of really young dogs, and it'd be really nice if we could try following you into town. And she said, 'No problem.' He said she was super nice, didn't make a big deal out of it and was really professional."
She said Pace described Neese, the youngest musher in the race, as his "savior."
Hours later, Rob Cooke and his team of Siberians arrived in Dawson. The Quest veteran, who lives in Whitehorse, also had difficulty finding a dog willing to lead his team.
"It's been a long night. (I'm) a bit emotional," Cooke said, fighting back tears. "The dogs have done really well. They've had a hard race."
Cooke got choked up describing how he tried for hours to find a good leader combination and how he had to walk in front of them to keep moving.
"It was a pretty intense night, and it's not one I want to go through again," he said.
Cooke's dogs appeared to have benefited from the breaks he was forced to take along the way to Dawson. When Cooke arrived, his wheel dog lurched forward and, with the others, pulled the sled a couple of feet from where it had been initially parked before Cooke reset his snow hook.
"You know, you can't go through here, you've got to stay your 36 (hours)," race marshal Doug Grilliot joked. "Man they look good."
But the exhausted musher was not sure if he would even continue from Dawson.
"I don't know. I don't know if there's going to be a second half of the race," he said. "I'll see how I feel once I've had some sleep. This next section, to Pelly (Crossing) through the Black Hills, I know from last year that can be a quite difficult section."