Neff and team take a run down the trail near Annie Lake.
Quest for success
Skagway musher tackles tougher Fairbanks to Whitehorse route for first time
Story and Photos by Andrew Cremata
ANNIE LAKE, YUKON When it comes to sled dog racing there is a time to prepare, a time to practice and a time to race. For Hugh Neff there is even a time to play.
Neff has been busy preparing for his fifth Yukon Quest with his girlfriend and handler Tamra Reynolds at their home and training facility, Laughing Eyes Kennel, off Annie Lake Road near Whitehorse. This will be the first time the Chicago native will begin the race in Fairbanks and hopefully cross the finish line in Whitehorse.
There is good reason to believe that Neff will be crossing that line somewhere near the head of the pack. Neff finished third last year, his best finish, but the preparations for the race can be the most daunting aspect of the entire sport. Indeed, nine mushers have already withdrawn from the race since the Dec. 15 registration deadline.
We did our food drop last week, said Neff. He will do the same thing on his way up to Fairbanks for the Feb. 11 start of the race in preparation for running the Iditirod only 10 days after finishing the Quest.
We use a band saw to cut the meat into Snickers size pieces, he said. Its very time consuming, and not a lot of fun, he adds.
This process is far removed from the glamor and history of the race. Once on the trail, the bite-size morsels are softened with hot water and fed to the dogs for some much needed energy.
Training the dogs has not been easy for Neff this year. Normally we run them around the house, he said. This year, however, a lack of snow has forced Neff to head north to run the dogs, sometimes as far as the interior of Alaska.
On this day the sun is just starting to peek out from the tops of the mountains that surround his home. The thermometer reads a balmy zero degrees, and the dogs are rustling in, on top of, and around their kennels. A recent snowfall has draped the valley in white. A ridiculously overweight magpie lumbers from one tree branch to another looking for scraps the dogs might have neglected. He has obviously perfected the science.
The dogs suddenly begin to get restless and bark while circling their kennels. They apparently know something is about to happen. A few moments later, Neff pulls up in his truck that is converted to carry the dogs in individual holding pens. The team is already loaded and their heads are poking out from the holes eager with anticipation.
Neff explains that the training phase is over and that the run that he and his colleague Colin Morrison, a future Quest hopeful, will be running is for a different purpose.
Training is done. Today is just for fun, he says with a smile.
The recent snowfall has made it possible to run the dogs a mere five-minute drive from Neffs home. Neff and Morrison prepare two sleds, one for each, by attaching the guide-lines and harnesses. The dogs are pulled out of their kennels, and jump with excitement.
Neff brags about his lead dog Flame. In last years race, Flame was the wheel dog.
Neff explains, The wheel dog is usually the smartest. However, it is unusual for a wheel dog to take over the lead spot.
He learned real fast, says Neff.
Neff has to break away from the routine to chase down Oosik, who has stolen more than his share of fat and is trying to gulp it down under the truck.
Two of Neffs dogs show their game faces, ready for the road trip to Fairbanks and the long run home to the Yukon.
Neff has over 50 dogs, 36 of them suited for racing. Fourteen of them will run the Quest, the best of the best.
Half of those 14 ran the race with Neff last year, but he is also confident in his newer dogs.
The talent level has gone way up, he says.
Neff has acquired some dogs that have been run predominately in sprint races. A sprint race is to the Quest what a 100-yard dash is to the Boston Marathon. While a sprint race dog may run a race at 22 m.ph., a Quest dog must run at approximately 14 m.p.h. to remain competitive and not burn out.
Neff says, We had to teach them to go slower. We have a lot of potential.
The real test will come shortly after the 11 a.m. starting gun. When the race begins in Whitehorse (on odd years), Neff explains that it is mostly hills that face the musher during the first portion of the trail. Starting the race in Fairbanks (on even years) means that only 90 miles into the trail the musher faces some serious mountains.
This means that mushers face the prospect of losing dogs quicker as veterinarians at each stop assess the health of the dogs. If they get a poor grade they are pulled from the team.
Last year Neff finished with seven dogs, and undoubtedly some mushers will have to withdraw well before the finish line due to the loss of too many members of the team.
Add to that the fact that Neff describes the trail this year as being rough and fast, and it becomes apparent that no matter how much preparation or care is undertaken, there is always the prospect of not being able to finish the race, the dreaded DNF.
Part of the training Neffs dogs receive is during the summer here in Skagway. The dogs daily run tourists along trails in Dyea in specialized wheeled-carts that eliminate the need for snow.
Another Quest and Iditarod racer, Sebastian Schnuelle, trains his dogs here at the same facility, but Neff is the only racer who calls Skagway home.
A mile into the trail near Neffs home a thick snow hangs from the trees and sunlight drapes their branches making them sparkle like diamonds. The air is brisk, and the quiet is pronounced. A pair of brilliant red pine grosbeaks picks berries from the trees, burying their heads under the packed on snow to retrieve the tasty morsels. They turn their heads to the sounds of dogs barking in the distance and fly away.
In a narrow passage lined with evergreens, the dogs appear from around a bend. The muffled sound of their paws pounding the snow grows louder as they approach, Neff in tow.
In a flash they pass, and Neff turns and waves as the team glides over a hill and out of sight.
Its a taste of the trail, the excitement, the hard work and dedication it takes to run in one of the toughest races the planet has to offer.
For Neff, its just a day to play.
Follow the Quest starting Feb. 11 at www.yukonquest.org