DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Nobody had a tougher time finishing the 2018 Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race than Nathaniel Hamlyn from Whitehorse, Yukon.
The then-rookie was dazed and confused as he walked around the Mile 101 Steese Highway checkpoint after dropping four of the eight dogs he started the race with. They had suffered shoulder injuries coming down Rosebud Summit, a 3,640-foot pass after Two Rivers, which was the first checkpoint in last year’s race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
Despite the fact the rookie had just eight dogs left, he still made it to Whitehorse in 12 days, 11 hours and 13 minutes. Hamlyn took the race’s Red Lantern after finishing the 1,000-mile trek with seven dogs, an improbable feat considering the way his journey began.
After receiving the Red Lantern given to the last-place finisher at the end-of-race awards banquet, Hamlyn declared he wouldn’t return to the Quest.
That plan changed, though, as the second-year Quest veteran returned with much of the same team for this year’s race, which began Saturday in Whitehorse and ends in Fairbanks.
“I know I told people I would never be back,” he said at the Meet the Mushers event held Jan. 30 in Whitehorse. “I looked at the races I could do, and I just thought that nothing would add up to the Quest. It’s an amazing event, and if I did anything else, I’d probably want more.
“I thought I might as well. I have a small kennel and I have the dogs to do this, so I might as well.”
This year, Hamlyn arrived in Dawson City, the final checkpoint on the Canada side located about 400 miles from the start line, at 8:43 p.m. Alaska time Tuesday. He pulled in with 13 dogs, though he said he was taking 11 with him when he began the 150-mile journey across the border to Eagle, the first stop on the Alaska side of the trail, at 8:43 a.m. Alaska time Thursday.
Even though he left with two fewer dogs than he had when he arrived in Dawson, Hamlyn said he still felt better about the second half of this year’s race than he did a year ago, when the injury bug bit his team early and rattled his game plan.
“I’m still concerned, but I feel a little better knowing that even if I drop a dog or two, I’ll still be able to finish,” said Hamlyn, who was dressed in a red puffy parka while he applied blue protective jackets on his dogs early Thursday morning at the Dawson dog yard.
Hamlyn said he felt like his team had much more power heading into Dawson than it did last year. He noted that it was especially noticeable when his teams passed over hills, including the 4,002-foot peak of King Solomon’s Dome, during the 210-mile run to Dawson from Pelly Crossing, the previous checkpoint.
“The hills, I was expecting them to be worse, but (the dogs) just kept chugging along,” Hamlyn said. “I was happy about that.”
That run was the latest example of the success Hamlyn’s team is having during this year’s race. He singled out two leaders, Kirsten and Tara, for helping him be the 10th musher to arrive in Dawson out of a field of 30.
“Kirsten hasn’t really led too much in a race, but she’s leading some in this one and she’s doing really, really good,” he said. “My other leader, Tara, is just awesome.”
Hamlyn’s dogs aren’t the only reason the 24-year-old is performing well during his second Quest. He said the biggest thing he learned after his rookie race was the trail, which has alleviated some of the concerns he had in 2018
“I have a little bit of a picture in my head, so I won’t panic as much,” Hamlyn said in regards to his expectations for the Alaska side of the trail. “There was a lot of panicking last year. That’s not good for the dogs, so just me knowing the trail will certainly help.”
Although he said he sometimes looks at the Red Lantern as a source of motivation, it also acts as an effective source of light at his home and kennel, Step Up Kennel, in Whitehorse.
“I keep it on my wall and I use it,” he said before starting his run to Eagle. “I live off-grid so I make my own power. It’s oil, so I use it.”
As much as he enjoys lighting the lantern, Hamlyn isn’t hoping for another last-place finish in Fairbanks.
“I don’t want another Red Lantern!” he said with a laugh.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.