'Dream Quest' for Dyea dogs

Skagway musher takes on Yukon Quest, Iditarod

By ANDREW CREMATA

Hugh Neff is a sled dog racer. On Sunday, Feb. 13, Neff and a field of 20 other competitors will line up on the historic streets of Whitehorse, at the starting line for the Yukon Quest. The Quest stands alongside the Iditarod as a litmus test for those seeking to brave the challenges and perils of the true north. It is a race for the rugged and hardened. Neff simply says, “It’s a rush.”
Neff worked for Robert Murphy last summer. Murphy runs a sled dog operation in Dyea, which allows tourists to purchase a ride behind a pack of genuine sled dogs. It is a good match for Neff, who supplies Murphy with 30 to 40 dogs in the summer for the tour, and in return the dogs get to train during the warm summer months.
“They muscle up, because they’re pulling some pretty big (people),” said Neff about the well-fed cruise ship passengers that represent the vast majority of his customers. “They are pulling 2,000 lbs. of weight up this hill under Face Mountain three times a day.”
This is just one aspect of the training that is necessary to compete in the Quest. During the winter months, Neff lives with his girlfriend Tamra Reynolds who helps him with the 12-to-14 hour days taking care of the dogs at their Laughing Eyes Kennel. Routine 50-mile runs are necessary to condition the dogs, and Reynolds’ home on Annie Lake Road near Whitehorse provides an ideal environment for training. “This has been a good year for snow,” said Neff.
Training can be even more dangerous than the race. Moose frequent the trails where the dog teams run and Neff has had some harrowing encounters with these and other wild animals. Neff relates, “During one training run a moose was following the sled. It got caught in it and flipped it over. This was three days before my first race. These dogs cost me from $500 to $2,000, and a team can be worth $20,000... Moose are the biggest concern.”
Neff’s team survived this incident but other dogs aren’t so lucky. Neff tells another training story about a rogue wolf that was following the teams and who many speculated was responsible for the deaths of nine dogs. It was confirmed when Neff came upon the wolf gnawing on the neck of a husky. “It stopped to look up at us and then just kept on eating. The crazy thing is, the dog survived.”
The wolf wasn’t as lucky.
One of the most challenging aspects of preparation for Neff is funding the feeding, training and race preparations: “We spend $20,000 a year for dog food alone. We spend $10-$15,000 to get ready. This is for thousands of pounds of meat, kibble, batteries, dog medication, clothing- you send it to headquarters and they send to the checkpoints along the way. When you pull into a checkpoint you pick up all your stuff.”
Besides his summer gig in Skagway, Neff raises money for his passion by luring sponsors through his newsletter and touring schools in the Lower 48, bringing the romance and excitement of Alaska and its native dogs to wide-eyed children and even wider-eyed adults. “The kids are a major part of the fan base,” said Neff. “(In April) I toured 10 different schools in less than a week.”
Neff gets a chuckle from some of the questions the kids ask. Neff cites examples such as, “Is it cold up there?”, “How do they go to the bathroom while running?”, “How do you remember all their names?”
Neff describes mushing as, “...being one part used-car salesman, you’re always trying to come up with enough money to pay for everything.” He tells the kids to “follow your dreams,” which is something Neff has certainly done.
“I grew up in Evanston, outside of Chicago,” said Neff. “I was a caddy for 15 years. I loved dogs. I came here when I was in college and worked at a couple of canneries in Kenai. I saw some Iditarod videos and it seemed like a cool thing to do.”
Neff switched gears and began working for Native mushers. He trained for five years with the Erhart family before getting started on his own. Last year Neff raced the Iditarod and came in 22nd out of 77 teams. He was named rookie of the year.
This year Neff will run the Yukon Quest AND the Iditarod using two different teams that he trained individually for each race. Neff describes the difference, “Both are pretty intense. The Quest is an endurance race and colder while the Iditarod is a speed race and windier.”
Neff depicts the Quest as more mountainous and taking 10-11 days to finish, while the Iditarod is longer but over flatter terrain, thus making the run shorter at nine days. Neff only has 10 days in between races. He said, “The racing will be easier than the training because of training the two teams.”
What about the race?
Neff gets an eager look in his eyes when describing the race. He describes the electricity in the air as all of the teams line up at the starting line. Neff has three game plans. One for optimal conditions, one that’s based on weather, and one he describes as, “watch and imitate.”
“You really don’t start racing until the end of the race, because you are just trying to maintain the dogs,” he said. “If you push them too hard they will fry out.”
Neff makes it clear that the dogs are not the only ones in danger. “About 300 miles into the race you encounter the wall,” he said. The wall is the ultimate test for the musher and describes a point where you either burn out or strengthen your resolve. “Once you get past that, it’s automatic.”
Neff will run the team for 6-8 hours and then take a 6-8 hour break. During the breaks Neff may only get one or two hours of sleep because while the dogs rest he has to prepare their meals and get them ready for the next leg. He continues, “(The dogs) are the ones treated like kings and I’m the one eating macaroni and cheese.”
This regimen obviously creates fatigue for the racer. “You fall asleep in your sled a lot,” said Neff. “You wake up and you’re going down a mountain. You have to drink a lot of water. When you stop drinking you start to hallucinate.”
When asked what is the biggest risk facing a musher Neff says in very matter-of-fact way, “You could die.”
Neff has had first-hand experience with the dangers of sled dog racing; he lost the tips of his toes on his left foot to frostbite in his last Yukon Quest race.
Other moments in the race are subtler. There are scenes of northern lights blazing, peace and solitude.
“Sometimes you pull into a Native village and the kids come out and ask for the dog booties to sell as souvenirs,” he said.
Neff describes some of these villages as being “third-worldish compared to Skagway.” He adds, “This is the nicest little town there is in Alaska.”
Neff is continually motivated by his love for dogs and his competitive spirit. “We’re obviously not doing this for the money,” he said.
After the two races and their subsequent post-race revelries Neff will be coming back to Skagway for the summer. Neff says with a smile, “I love it here.”

FOLLOW HUGH IN THE QUEST: www.yukonquest.org