DAWSON CITY, Yukon — There’s about to be some separation among the teams in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
The 30 teams in the field were bunched together for much of the Canada side of the trail, thanks in part to the race requiring teams to truck from Braeburn — the first checkpoint — to Carmacks, the second checkpoint about 77 miles down the trail.
Teams began separating themselves from others during the 210-mile journey from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City, the final checkpoint before the Alaska border. Now, some teams are beginning their 150-mile trek to Eagle, the first stop on the Alaska side, while others continued to reach Dawson on Wednesday.
Brent Sass was the first musher expected to leave for Eagle at 10:24 p.m. Alaska time Wednesday. Sass, a Eureka resident who won the 1,000-mile race in 2015, was the first to arrive in Dawson, making it to Canada’s last stop at 10:24 a.m. Alaska time Tuesday.
After spending a mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson, Sass said he and his team were ready to go after he and some competitors met earlier Wednesday evening for a trail report led by Canadian Ranger John Mitchell at the checkpoint, located at the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre.
“My dogs are in good shape,” Sass said, looking relaxed and well rested after the extended break from the trail. “They needed the rest. I needed some rest, but now I’m ready to run.”
Sass wasn’t the only musher expected to leave late Wednesday night. Quest veteran Michelle Phillips of 10 Mile, Yukon, who arrived in Dawson second, was allowed to leave at 10:51 p.m. Alaska time, while Hans Gatt, the four-time champion from Whitehorse, was scheduled to depart for Eagle at 11:07 p.m. Alaska time.
Defending champion and three-time winner Allen Moore of Two Rivers was slotted to leave nine minutes after Gatt.
Although four teams, three of which are former champions, were expected to leave within 43 minutes of each other, Sass said the bunched front of the pack wasn’t going to influence him to make any drastic strategic decisions.
“I’ve gotten caught in the heat of the battle and made some decisions, both in this race and the Iditarod, that probably weren’t that great, that definitely weren’t 100 percent in favor of my dog team,” he said. “You’re never really going to win if you don’t put the pedal to the metal, but there’s a time and a place for it.
“You have to make those decisions because of the 14 dogs in front of you, and not because of the 14 dogs that just passed you. That’s the hard part.”
While Sass and the front of the pack prepared to leave Dawson, more teams continued to file into the checkpoint throughout the day.
Jim Lanier, a 78-year-old rookie from Chugiak, reached the checkpoint at 11:37 a.m. Alaska time. He said he was “Just OK,” when asked how he was feeling. The rookie then went into greater detail about how the journey from Pelly to Dawson took a bit of a toll on him.
“It was a little bit rough,” Lanier said. “I lost a couple teeth, I got hit in the head, I got a cracked rib and now my life’s rough.”
For other rookies, such as Chase Tingle, of Two Rivers, the ride from Pelly to Dawson was a dream come true.
“When I was coming down the river, I got my camera out and took a picture,” Tingle said, describing the final stretch of trail before the checkpoint. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m running sled dogs into Dawson City right now.’ When I was a little kid, this is something I’d read about doing, the Jack London stories and all that. And here I am.”
The mushers seemed pleased with the updated trail report, which Sass said, “Sounds amazing.”
Mitchell delivered the report in front of a handful of mushers and handlers in addition to many more onlookers eager to learn what the teams will face as they travel 76 miles to the Alaska border.
Teams will travel 50 miles out of Dawson to the Fortymile River before running on the waterway for 26 miles until they reach the border. Mitchell said they will encounter a glacier on the river, but he noted that the fresh snow covering it should make it easy to handle.
“It’s not dangerous at all,” he said as he addressed the standing-room-only crowd at the checkpoint. “Just don’t go flying into it at 30 miles per hour or something.”
Across the border, the Fortymile River continues to have plenty of snow cover on the way to Eagle. The report indicated there is scant overflow and some jumble ice around the border, but the trail should generally be good to the Taylor Highway Bridge.
Drifted conditions are expected on American Summit, a 3,420-foot pass the teams will travel over before making the final 18-mile push into Eagle.
Upon arriving in Eagle, teams will be checked in by race officials and a U.S. customs officer.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.