CIRCLE, Alaska — Each day is harder than the previous for the mushers, dogs and team handlers brave enough to take on the challenge of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race.
It’s a reality of running the long-distance race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon. Between the freezing temperatures, increased mileage and a continuous lack of sleep, it’s hard to imagine teams could feel stronger as the race goes on.
After conquering Rosebud and Eagle summits on Sunday, most mushers spent Monday preparing themselves and their dogs for the 160-mile stretch from Circle to Eagle, the fifth of nine checkpoints teams will encounter before arriving in Whitehorse.
“I’ll probably be out there for at least 24 hours,” said Tim Pappas, a rookie from 17th Dog in Willow.
“Typically I have one food drop bag or two at each checkpoint. Here (Circle), I have five. That’s just a lot more food for the dogs and myself. Some of it won’t go, but there’s also a lot more supplies and extra booties to prepare.”
Aside from figuring out what supplies to bring on the stretch from Circle to Eagle — the longest duration between checkpoints on the trail — teams also need to establish a game plan that will help them pull into Eagle with a happy and healthy team of dogs.
Deciphering a strategy can become tricky as more and more teams begin to drop dogs because of injuries. But even though some teams might look at having fewer dogs as an obstacle, some, like rookie Nathaniel Hamlyn from Step Up Kennels in Whitehorse, feel at home running a smaller team.
“I’m not too worried. I think the team that I’ve got now can handle it,” said Hamlyn, who is fielding a team of eight dogs after having to drop four because of shoulder injuries sustained on the trek over Rosebud.
“I normally run small teams anyway, so it hasn’t made a huge difference. There’s a little less morale with less dogs, but I can go down to six and keep going if I need to.”
Regardless of the size of the team, each musher needs to find the best recipe for success. Most teams stop at Slaven’s Roadhouse, a legendary musher’s cabin that is isolated and 60 miles outside the Circle checkpoint.
From there, there is the Mike Sager’s Trout Creek Hospitality stop. It is another resting spot mushers can use to break up the 160-mile journey into three runs of relatively similar distances.
Trout Creek is located 57 miles from Slaven’s, though mushers will have to leave the trail on the Yukon River to reach it. Those two resting spots seemed to be the favorites among mushers, including Bernhard Schuchert, who has completed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race and has run the Finnmarkslopet in Norway 14 times.
Although Schuchert, a native of Vallbo, Germany, has 35 years of mushing experience, he was happy to receive some advice about how to make the Circle to Eagle commute a little bit easier.
“I’ll try to make it to Slaven’s and then have another rest at Trout Creek,” Schuchert said. “That’s the recommendation I got at least. We’ll see how it works out.”
Aside from resting, mushers also find a way to keep themselves entertained during the longest stretch of the race. With little to no human contact on the isolated trail along the Yukon River, some turn to music to prevent their mind from wandering.
“I haven’t listened to music yet, but I’ll probably listen to some music out there,” Pappas said. “You kind of just get in a zone and keep going.”
There’s no such thing as being too prepared on the Yukon Quest trail. That is why Vebjorn Aishana Reitan, a rookie from Kaktovik, isn’t taking any chances with his food preparation.
“I just have to make sure I bring enough food, and then a little bit extra,” he said.
Luc Tweddell, a veteran from Mendenhall, Yukon, had the same idea.
“I always bring too much food anyways, just in case something happens or it gets really cold,” Tweddell said. “That will be the same as the past.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest