2019 Yukon Quest - Dawson City

Paige Drobny of Ester speaks with media after reaching Dawson City, the half-way point of the 2019 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Drobney rounded out the first five mushers into Dawson, with only a few hours standing between her and the lead musher. Feb. 5, 2019. Robin Wood/News-Miner

DAWSON CITY, Yukon — For the past seven years, Paige Drobny has spent her birthday out in the wilderness on the Yukon Quest trail. The 1,000-mile Quest veteran was all smiles Tuesday as she pulled into Dawson City.

The race officials and volunteers, and even some of the spectators standing at the checkpoint chute, serenaded Drobny, of Ester, with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” once she and her team settled under the bright yellow Quest banner at the race’s halfway point.

Drobny, who turned 44 on Tuesday, said she was ready to finally cherish her special day away from the trail during the mandatory 36-hour layover here.

“Celebrate my birthday for the first time in seven years!” Drobny enthusiastically replied when asked what she was going to do in Dawson shortly after she arrived at 1:06 p.m. Alaska time.

“I’ve been on the trail every other time,” she continued. “I’m going to eat and sleep to celebrate my birthday. I was supposed to be here earlier, but I kept hitting my alarm clock.”

Drobny’s team was the fifth to enter Dawson, which is located about 210 miles from the previous checkpoint, Pelly Crossing. Brent Sass was the first to arrive at the checkpoint, followed by Michelle Phillips, Hans Gatt and Allen Moore.

After her 36-hour layover ends at 1:06 a.m. Alaska time Thursday, Drobny and her team will be able to begin the 150-mile journey to Eagle, the next checkpoint and first stop on the Alaska side. That is where race officials and a U.S. customs officer will check her and the other mushers after completing the Canada side of the trail.

Despite being the fifth musher to arrive Tuesday, Drobny was mighty confident about her team’s ability to make up ground before reaching the finish line in Fairbanks, about 500 miles away from Dawson.

A reporter asked Drobny if she felt like she was still in contention to win the race, to which she replied, “Yeah,” with authority.

“You seem pretty confident,” another member of the media piped in.

“I mean, (the dogs) look awesome,” Drobny answered. “Anything is possible; it’s the Yukon Quest.”

Denis Tremblay, a veteran from Quebec, Canada, followed Drobny into Dawson, arriving at 2:44 p.m. Alaska time. Matt Hall, who won the 2017 race and calls Two Rivers home, was the seventh musher to arrive at about 5 p.m. Alaska time.

Another veteran from Two Rivers, Ryne Olson, pulled in about an hour later than Hall, while Torsten Kohnert, a veteran from Slussfors, Sweden, made it to the checkpoint just before 9 p.m. Alaska time.

Hall said his team entered Dawson with a head of steam after reaching the top of King Solomon’s Dome, which has a 4,002-foot peak and is located just before the checkpoint.

“Once we came off the dome, they knew where Dawson was,” he said. “They’ve been cranking. They’re looking really good.”

Although none of the 12 rookies in this year’s field of 30 teams had reached Dawson by press time, Martin Apayauq Reitan, a 21-year-old rookie from Kaktovik, had the checkpoint in his sights.

The rookie was traveling 7 mph about 11 miles outside of the checkpoint at press time. Behind Reitan were veterans Jessie Royer, Cody Strathe and Curt Perano, who were all about 20 miles from the checkpoint.

Dog yard moved

For the second straight year, the Dawson City dog yard is located at the Bonanza Gold Motel & RV Park, located on Bonanza Road about 2 miles away from the checkpoint, which is located at the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre on Front Street downtown.

The dog yard used to be located across the river from the checkpoint at a campground, but the unsafe condition of river ice led officials to move it to the RV park. Unlike last year, when teams were heading in the direction of the motel and RV park, this year’s trail passed by the dog yard before teams reached the checkpoint. Because of that, the race allowed teams to have their handlers pack up the dogs in trucks and drive them back to the dog yard, rather than making the mushers turn their teams and run a few miles in the direction they just came.

First-year race manager Briana Mackay acknowledged the decision to let teams truck likely throws a wrench in some spectators’ plans to park around the checkpoint, though she said the move has been well received by handlers.

“I think it’s been a little harder on the general public and outsiders because we’re restricting a lot of key parking areas,” she said. “But, for the handlers, I think it’s working well for them, which is our main focus, to make sure we’re giving our support to the dog teams.”

Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.