Story and Photos by Andrew Cremata
On the road to Dawson City there are bridges spanning the frozen waterways where the tracks of dog sleds meander downstream and confirm that the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race is underway.
In fact, the 1,000-mile race has reached the halfway point, and there is a mandatory 36-hour layover in the City of Gold. It is a chance to rest, regroup, and reflect on just what has transpired since the beginning of the toughest sled dog race in the world.
Five days earlier, Sunday Feb. 13, as soon as light began to fill the skies in Whitehorse it was evident that the start of the race would be blessed with crystal clear weather and temperatures only a sled dog or its musher could love. The tranquillity of the sub-zero morning scene in front of the White Pass building on First Avenue was soon shaken by the arrival of the first team.
Hugh Neffs team pokes snouts and heads out of their cubby holes.
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory Sunday Feb. 13, 2005.
Bruno Baureis makes his way to his position in the starting chute. He is from Gakona, Alaska and this will be his third Quest. He is followed shortly thereafter by Marcelle Fressineau who hails from Quebec. Fressineau immediately draws a swarm of media and interested onlookers as she pulls up in a converted mini school bus that holds all of her dogs in cubbyholes that resemble oversize mail-slots. When she opens the back doors the crowd gathers with cameras buzzing to get a shot of the animals peeking out.
By 9:30 a.m. about half of the field has arrived all working diligently on their sleds and supplies, making sure that everything is packed for maximum efficiency with as little weight to bear as possible.
John Schandelmeier, from Paxson, Alaska is talking to reporters about his boots and the minus-50 degree temperatures that they will be protecting his feet from later in the day. Schandelmeier is in great spirits. He is calm and collected and when he is not talking to the crowd he talks confidently to his dogs.
Schandelmeiers team represents a first for the Quest. He is using only four veteran dogs in his team. The other 10 are unwanted dogs, mostly from animal shelters, that he has trained. He is committed to racing these animals to help people realize that they need to just put time and effort into their animals to make them the best they can be. Winning this race with shelter dogs would be no small feat, but for Schandelmeier who is in his 15th Quest with two wins under his belt, it is definitely a possibility.
William Kleedehn is the next to arrive and his presence is made known by his dogs barking wildly while he attaches them to his vehicle via his stake-out chain. It is almost 11 a.m. and Kleedehns arrival sparks an upturn in the excitement level.
Kleedehn is the favorite in this years race, his ninth. He lists his hometown as Carcross, but he is more than just a local flavor. Kleedehn has earned his reputation as a top-level competitor by finishing second in 2003, and became the guy to beat in 2004.
Kleedehn trains from his Limp-A-Long Kennels, so named because of the fact that he has an artificial left leg. In last years race, while trying to push out of an icy area along the trail, his upper leg broke under the strain and forced him to scratch.
Kleedehn is proof that anything can, and will happen in this race. Kleedehn trains with his girlfriend Catherine Pinard, who is lined up in the starting chute right across from Kleedehn. This is her third race, and the world-class veterinarians that oversee the health of the dogs throughout the race are inspecting her team. Pinards natural beauty seems out of place among the ice-covered beards and grizzled mushing men. Her charm is also undeniable as she takes time with every passerby who asks her a question about her dogs. It is evident she races for the sheer enjoyment factor.
A handler helps one of Neffs dogs put on the prized booties for the trail.
Skagway resident Hugh Neff is one of the last competitors to enter the starting chute. His dogs are poking their heads out of the circular holes in his carrier. This immediately draws a very large crowd who film and take pictures at will. Hugh looks rested and ready and his dogs are eerily calm in the now thunderous excitement and anticipation.
His outward appearance belies his preparation for the race. Neff will be running a completely different team in the Iditarod, only a week or so after the finish of the Quest.
I ran my Iditarod team 50 miles yesterday, says Neff. This is vacation time.
When one considers that Neffs idea of a vacation includes minus 50-degree temperatures, snow drifts 15 feet deep that can swallow a man whole, and the ever-present threat of injury to life and limb, it makes one wonder what he does when hes not relaxing.
Neff, Kleedehn, and other favorites in the competition use modern, lightweight aluminum sleds for the race. I used to race with the more traditional wooden sleds, says Neff. But if youre going to compete you need to use (aluminum) sleds. The top 10 will run these sleds.
Musher Lance Mackey does not agree. When questioned by a reporter about his wooden sled he says, Yeah, its old equipment but thats my style. Why would I buy new equipment when the old stuff works just fine? What others do is totally irrelevant, what I have going works for me.
Mackey is a rookie in the Quest, but he comes from a mushing family and his old-school attitude brings with it an air of legitimacy that should not be underestimated.
Musher Sebastian Schnuelle talks with rookie Jon Little. Schnuelles dogs train during the summer in Dyea with Neffs. Both men are laughing, joking and seem eager to get things underway.
Lined up next to Little is another favorite, Frank Turner, the most experienced musher in the field who has raced in every Quest. With one claim to victory in 1995, and 11 top ten finishes in his last 13 races Turner has experience on his side.
Turner stands out from the other competitors with his team of handlers in matching maroon coats and one of the nicest and newest trucks parked in the chute with banners draped across it displaying the names of his sponsors.
With only a half hour left before the start of the race handlers begin putting booties on the dogs to protect their feet from the sometimes sharp, icy ground and some males get special coats to guard against the unforgiving frostbite that has been known to painfully freeze their genitals.
The barking dogs and the rancor from the crowd numbering in the thousands are like an orchestra tuning up for a big production. Mushers turn their attention to their dogs, with many holding what appear to be in-depth conversations. The dogs seem to listen intently, ignoring the swelling chaos. Fressineau is down on her knees mere inches away from one of her dogs face. One can only imagine what transpires in these moments between dog and master.
Marcelle Fressineau talks to a member of her team.
The racers will begin the race at the starting line, departing in staggered two-minute intervals. The starting chute is now lined with onlookers as far as the eye can see up First Avenue.
In the moments leading up to the countdown for the start of the race, the excitement and noise build to a crescendo. Schandelmeier is asked how his dogs are. They are ready to go, he answers. Like the rest of the field he is calm, with a focused look about him. The dogs appear eager for the trail, there is no denying this is what they have been bred for generations to do.
Musher Kelly Griffin will be the first to start and she and her handlers are hurriedly attaching the dogs to her gangline. The handlers have to restrain the dogs as the excitement and noise is now overwhelming.
The team is led to the starting line. It takes numerous handlers to keep the dogs from tearing out on their own. They are howling into the air, steam billowing from their mouths. Griffin is poised on her sled, surrounded by race officials and handlers.
The countdown begins.
When zero is reached, Griffins handlers release the dogs and they quickly spring to a sprint. Sled dogs are fast, and they race down the starting chute out of sight, all to the delight of the waving and screaming spectators.
Neff is next. He seems blissfully unaware of the bedlam that surrounds him, but still manages to offer a wave to the crowd as he begins the 22nd Annual Yukon Quest.
For the next 44 minutes the teams depart with the last being Gerry Willomitzer from Shallow Bay, Yukon.
The teams will race 100 miles to their first checkpoint in Braeburn.
Tamra Reynolds wolfs down a famous Braeburn Burger while waiting for Neff to arrive.
Braeburn on the N. Klondike Highway, 8:30 p.m.
There is a mandatory two-hour layover at the Braeburn Lodge, famous for its mammoth-sized cinnamon buns. The parking lot is full of vehicles billowing smoke into the air from their exhaust pipes. The engines run to keep the interiors warm in the minus 25 degree cold that feels even colder in the wind.
Just behind the lodge, a crescent moon hangs like a floating cradle above the forest. Suddenly, the darkness from inside the woods reveals a flickering light. One of the teams is about to arrive. A man bangs on the window of the lodge yelling, A musher! The crowd hurries out as rookie Dan Perrino pulls in to a waiting group of race officials.
Perrino arrives at 11:11 p.m. followed by Mackey at 11:34 p.m.
At the stroke of midnight, Neff pulls in. he will bed his dogs down here and stay the night at the lodge. While some mushers will choose to bed down before this checkpoint, Neff believes that pushing the dogs a little to get to Braeburn will be beneficial as he gets some much needed rest.
Neff eats a bowl of beef stew, and heads off with his partner Tamra Reynolds for a night of rest.
The eyes have it - Neffs team arrives at the Braeburn checkpoint.
Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Thurs. Feb. 17, 2005.
Neff is the fist to arrive in Dawson City at 12:21 p.m. This means he will win a four-ounce poke of gold if he only finishes the race. The week-long spectacular weather is making for a shorter race but only 14 teams out of the original 21 will be leaving Dawson, the rest of the field having scratched.
Neff chooses to rent a room at the Downtown Hotel but his dog team, as well as the other teams, will be staying at the campground just across an ice bridge spanning the Yukon River that marks the beginning of the Top of the World Highway.
Race favorite Kleedehn is in fourth place, and talks to some fans over breakfast on Friday. He did too many long runs, says Kleedehn of leader Neff. Hopefully he can finish the race.
Reynolds brushes off Kleedehns comments. Hugh will finish the race, she said. Reynolds eyes look weary as she makes preparations for the rest of the race. When she leaves Dawson, she will have to drive all the way back to Annie Lake Road past Whitehorse to pick up Neffs Iditarod team before driving all the way back up to the Alaska side of the race.
Reynolds gets little rest herself and is a reminder that the racers are not the only ones who sacrifice themselves for the passion of this sport.
In fact, kindness and enthusiasm mark all of the animals and people involved in this race. The racers, veterinarians, officials, handlers, media and even the casual fans seem to glow, even in these demanding circumstances with little sleep, under icy stars.
Neff departs Dawson at 12:59 a.m. Saturday. Can the Skagway musher win? Only time will tell.
Schandelmeier works on his sled during his Dawson layover.
UPDATE: Hugh Neff takes third in Quest
As this issue was going to press on Feb. 24, Hugh Neff was in second place in a tight lead pack with Lance Mackey and William Kleedehn on the last 100 miles of the race between Angel Creek and Fairbanks. After losing the lead at 40-Mile, Hugh had retaken it after Circle. Dave Dalton and Jon Little also were in striking distance. Neff eventually finished third behind Mackey and Kleedehn that Thursday afternoon. See www.yukonquest.org for complete results, and the March 11 Skagway News for more about Neffs Quest and his Iditarod start.