PELLY CROSSING, Yukon — Watching the Yukon Quest has never been easier. Ever since 2010, when online tracking devices were first introduced to the 1,000-mile sled dog race, fans and spectators have had the opportunity to watch the race from the comfort of their homes.
It wasn’t always that way.
Gerry Willomitzer, a five-time finisher of the 1,000-mile Quest who is now a first-year race judge, remembers the old days when people had to get down to the trail to learn what was happening in person.
One particular stretch of the trail — the 210-mile journey from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City that most teams had begun Monday by press time — used to be especially nerve-wracking for Quest fans and race officials.
“I remember the race in the late ’90s, you saw the teams off in Pelly Crossing and then it was a black hole,” Willomitzer said Monday at Pelly. “Nobody expected to get any news. We just went by historic data, what had teams done in previous years and expected their times.”
Without the use of online trackers, which Willomitzer said really took off in 2011, the folks waiting at the Dawson checkpoint would often get nervous about when teams would begin to arrive at the final stop before the Alaska border.
“People would get antsy in Dawson, and two or three would hop on snowmachines and ride up to King Solomon’s Dome and meet the teams,” Willomitzer said, referencing the race’s highest pass teams must travel over at 4,002 feet before descending into Dawson.
“That was before cellphones, so nobody could just call in. The machines would come back from King Solomon’s Dome and spread the word.”
Back during the early days of online tracking, Willomitzer said teams would try to beat the system. It wasn’t uncommon for mushers to put their tracker in an aluminum cook pot and tuck it inside their sled in an effort to not give away any secrets.
Over time, though, mushers have seen the benefits of how race-tracking devices can improve sled dog racing. Even though Willomitzer understands the lure to keep things hidden from competitors, he noted the online system has helped new fans fall in love with mushing.
“It’s easier for younger people to get into the sport,” he said. “There’s not as big of a learning curve. The bad thing is you’re playing with open cards all the time. People can always be looking at your cards and see your move.”
Teams approach Dawson
The first team is expected to arrive at Canada’s final checkpoint early this morning. As of press time, the race’s online tracker showed veteran Michelle Phillips and her team were the closest to the checkpoint, about 66 miles from Dawson.
However, Phillips wasn’t moving on the tracker, and Brent Sass’ team was traveling 6.1 mph just 3.6 miles behind her. Hans Gatt’s team was the next closest, traveling 4.8 mph about 74.3 miles from the checkpoint.
The first team to Dawson receives a “poke of gold,” which contains 2 ounces of gold. They’ll get to keep the 2 ounces, which is worth about $2,632 today, if they reach the finish line in Fairbanks.
Hall drops dog in Pelly
Former 1,000-mile Quest champion Matt Hall dropped Salcha from his team after arriving at Pelly Crossing at 6:55 p.m. Alaska time Sunday. A post on the Facebook page of Hall’s kennel, Smokin’ Ace Sled Dog Kennels, said the dog was diagnosed with cancer.
“After hours of diagnostics (radiographs, ultrasounds & a full blood panel) Salcha was diagnosed with cancer,” the author of the post wrote. “Salcha and I are currently eating dinner in bed and cuddling in a down comforter in a hotel in Whitehorse.”
The post also said Hall, who lives in Two Rivers and won the 2017 race before finishing second last year, waited for an update at Pelly Crossing before eventually leaving for Dawson at 11:08 p.m. Alaska time Sunday.
“Matt, who had intended on only staying 4-hrs in Pelly, sat by anxiously, checking in every 20 minutes & pushing off his departure time to await news of her health,” the post reads. “Choking back tears, it was decided that Matt should continue on down the trail and we told each other that Salcha would see him in Dawson.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.