DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Each year, sled dog enthusiasts look at the Yukon Quest field and wonder which team will rise to the occasion and conquer the 1,000-mile race to become a champion.
Veteran Hugh Neff routinely is regarded as one of the sport’s best competitors, having won the Quest twice — 2012 and 2016 — and finished in the top 10 in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race two more times. Because of his past success, many onlookers always expect him to be in the hunt as frontrunners dash for the Quest finish line.
It won’t be happening this year. Neff, from Laughing Eyes Kennel in Tok, scratched from the race when he pulled into the Dawson City checkpoint at 9:05 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on Friday. It marked the end of his heart-wrenching race that included the death of Boppy, a 4-year-old leader, who died Friday afternoon inside a cabin about 45 miles outside of Dawson City.
On Saturday morning, the longtime veteran reflected on what was one of the most difficult races of which he has ever been a part.
“I’m glad to be off the trail,” Neff said. “It hasn’t really been a fun week.”
Neff didn’t expect to be a frontrunner in this year’s race because he and his wife, Olivia Shank Neff, split up the dogs from their kennel. A lot of their best runners went with his wife, who was running the Quest-organized YQ300, a 300-mile race that followed the same trail as the 1,000-mile trek.
“I figured I would have a demanding run on this trail,” Neff said. “But obviously this year — and I’ve done 18 Quests — this was the most demanding Quest I’ve seen as far as weather conditions. It’s not the cold alone. It’s the cold mixed with the wind.”
The pain radiated off of Neff’s face as he spoke about Boppy at the Eldorado Hotel in Dawson City.
“He was a special dog,” he said. “He meant a lot to us, and he was one of my main leaders. He was one of my wife’s favorites. I don’t know. Sometimes you wonder what we’re doing out here. Is it really worth all the anguish we sometimes have to go through?
“But life is never easy. I hope he’s in a better place.”
Neff contemplated whether mushing is the right thing for him to be doing. Boppy was named after Ted Agre, Neff’s friend from Tok who died at a sled dog race a few years ago — Agre’s grandchildren called him Boppy as a nickname — and losing the dog hurt.
He considered how he could honor the dog.
“A lot of us aren’t into what civilized society is like now,” Neff said. “We want it to be like the good old days, and this is our way of honoring the past. There’s a part of me that says, ‘Why even race?’ But there’s another part of me that says, ‘You’ve got to honor Boppy and his spirit and get out their with his buddies and put on a show.’”
Neff said he still plans to run the Iditarod next month with the same dogs, including 10-year-old George Costanza, a two-time Golden Harness Award winner; 5-year-olds Lester and Calypso, and 2-year-olds Lebowski and Bowlowski. He still has a deep love for the Quest and what it stands for.
“For a lot of us, the Quest is much bigger than some race,” he said. “That’s why a lot of the top professional mushers don’t get it. They don’t get how amazing the Quest is because it looks so rough. It is rough, but it’s also such a beautiful experience.”
He said he hopes the experience never changes. If it does, he knows it’ll be time to find a different trail.
“It’s the true Gold Rush era,” Neff said. “Hopefully, this race never has a lot of money. I don’t want it to ever be corporate, because it should always be about local, everyday mushers getting together and having fun on the trail.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.