Update 7:50 a.m.: Brent Sass has arrived at Stepping Stone hospitality stop. Hugh Neff, Hans Gatt and Ken Anderson are all on the trail out of Pelly Crossing this morning.
CARMACKS, Yukon — Familiar names sat atop the standings on the second day of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. And those familiar names are quite familiar with the Quest’s trail.
And it makes one of them a little bit nervous.
“This is my 11th Quest, so I know every inch of this trail, unless they’ve rerouted it, you never know,” said Hugh Neff, who has led the early miles of the 1,000-mile race to Fairbanks.
Neff, who has been calling Tok his home of late, was the first to arrive at this second checkpoint on the Quest, pulling in at 10:58 a.m. Yukon time (9:58 Alaska time) Sunday. Carmacks, on the banks of the Yukon River, is 177 miles from the starting line in Whitehorse, Yukon.
Neff was followed about an hour later by mushers Wade Marrs of Wasilla, four-time Quest champion Hans Gatt of Whitehorse, and Ken Anderson of Fairbanks. Brent Sass, Allen Moore and Michelle Phillips arrived and stayed only
minutes before departing because they rested on the trail.
Neff left at 4:26 p.m. after a rest of less than 6 hours and was followed out of the checkpoint 52 minutes later by 2009 Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle, who moved into second place by staying only 15 minutes at the Carmacks checkpoint. At 10:15 p.m. Yukon time, Neff passed through McCabe Creek dog drop, the first to do so, according to the Quest’s Facebook page.
Teams change position many times at this point in the race, often on the trail and out of sight of race officials. Some mushers prefer to rest their dogs on the trail rather than in the checkpoints, adding mystery to who is really in the lead.
One thing certain early in this race is that the trail is a fast one.
“So I did a pretty long run there, (Braeburn to Carmacks) made good time, maybe too fast actually,” Neff said. “It’s a very, very fast trail so you have to be careful about pushing the dogs too hard where it’s going to sap their energy, so that’s why I’m going to give them a good break here right now. …
“The trail’s amazing, I mean really good,” he said. “And the weather’s nice. I don’t think 30 below Celsius (20 below Fahrenheit) is that bad at all. You really only feel it when you get off the sled and you get into a checkpoint.”
The race saw its first scratch as Denis Tremblay dropped out because of a virus plaguing his team. One-third of the Quest field usually drops out before the finish. Tremblay’s departure leaves 24 teams on the trail.
Meanwhile, Gerry Willomitzer of Yukon was the first of the 23 mushers in the Yukon Quest 300 race to reach Carmacks. Willomitzer arrived at 5:08 p.m., followed 27 minutes later by Ed Hopkins, also of Yukon. Both are veterans of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. As of 10:15 p.m., Yukon time, all Quest 300 mushers had left the first checkpoint at Braeburn. Four had reached Carmacks.
From Carmacks, teams in the full 1,000-mile and 300-mile races head to the next checkpoint,
72 miles distant at Pelly Crossing. An official dog drop at McCabe Creek is roughly midway between the two points. Teams were passing through or approaching McCabe late Sunday night.
Anderson, who has run many Quests, noted the fast trail and the speed of Neff.
“Hugh is kind of pushing the pace here it seems,” Anderson told KUAC radio’s Emily Schwing in an interview from the Carmacks checkpoint and posted on the Yukon Quest’s Facebook page. “Who knows what he’ll do here. But I’ve got my plan that I’ll stick to and see how it works out.”
“We’re just, what, a 170 miles into the race?” he added. “Lots of trail ahead.”
News-Miner managing editor Rod Boyce in Fairbanks contributed to this report.