Quest Notebook: Racing ghosts

Aaron Burmeister was chased by a ghost on a dog sled. The rookie musher left the last Yukon Quest checkpoint 10 minutes ahead of Michelle Phillips.

Aaron Burmeister was chased by a ghost on a dog sled.

The rookie musher left the last Yukon Quest checkpoint 10 minutes ahead of Michelle Phillips.

And he expected a race to the finish.

“I was pedaling and looking over my shoulder,” said Burmeister.

“Michelle was five minutes away and I thought she caught me in Two Rivers. I saw a headlamp, so I started whistling at the dogs and pumping to get away. I drove like hell to North Pole to make sure Michelle didn’t see me again.

“But it turns out I was racing a ghost.”

Or so he thought.

The disappearing ghost was, in fact, Phillips.

Fast asleep, the Tagish musher took a wrong turn in Two Rivers and got off the Quest trail, probably right after Burmeister saw her.

“I woke up and realized I wasn’t seeing any trail markers,” she said.

Phillips got off her sled and started to examine the trail for runner tracks, then realized that Two Rivers is a mushing mecca and there were sled tracks everywhere.

“So I started to look at the dog poo, to see if it looked like Quest poo,” she said with a laugh.

“Then I realized I better just turn around.”

The wrong turn set Phillips back at least 30 minutes, and she arrived in sixth place, roughly 40 minutes after Burmeister.

“The other guys were so close they were spitting on each other, and I figured we would be too,” said Burmeister.

“But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Deals with dogs

Gerry Willomitzer and William Kleedehn finished in Fairbanks three minutes apart.

“I didn’t know he was that close, or I wouldn’t have stopped for a pee,” said Willomitzer.

The Shallow Bay musher paused a few turns before the finish line to relieve himself.

“But I was looking over my shoulder the whole time,” he said.

Willomitzer and Kleedehn were racing, but not for money.

Running together since Braeburn, the two mushers struck a deal just before leaving Central.

Racing for third and fourth, Willomitzer asked Kleedehn if he wanted to split the earnings down the middle.

And Kleedehn was quick to respond.

“So we’d each get $18,250,” he said.

“I’d never seen him come up with a number that quick — he must have had it in his head for awhile,” said Willomitzer.

The distribution between those first few spots is the biggest Willomitzer’s seen in a race.

There’s a difference of $10,000 between first and second, and $8,500 between third and fourth.

“We talked about that in the summer,” said Willomitzer.

“And all race we’d been going the same speed and helping each other, so why at the end would one guy go home with $8,500 more than the other?”

It was still a race to the finish, he added.

“You want to see who has the faster dog team.”

Former Quest musher Ed Hopkins thinks deals are “pathetic.”

“I’m competitive and I like to race,” he said, waiting at the finish for his partner Michelle Phillips.

“If I want to make a deal I go buy a used car.”

Third dog dies on Quest

Thursday morning, Yukon Quest veteran Kelley Griffin lost Hope.

The six-year-old female died on the race trail between Chena Hot Springs and North Pole.

A necropsy is in progress.

Griffin finished the race in 14th place.

If a dog dies

Three dogs died on the Yukon Quest this year.

And no mushers were disqualified.

“If it’s the driver’s fault and they did something wrong, or were complicit, then, absolutely, they would be disqualified and held accountable,” said race marshal Mike McCowan.

But this year, this wasn’t the case.

“If we disqualified those drivers anyway, then why not just walk up and kick someone in the guts when they’re down?”

In the mid-‘90s, under pressure from the Humane Society, the Iditarod put a rule in place that would disqualify drivers instantly if a dog died on their team.

The first year it was in effect, one of Rick Swenson’s dogs died on the trail and he was disqualified.

“Then, everyone realized how unjust the rule was,” said McCowan.

The next year, that rule was gone.

“If anyone thinks, we say, ‘Oh, a dog died, no big deal,’ they just don’t understand,” he said.

“Those mushers think about that dog every mile of the way.

“Those dogs are like family.”

By disqualifying a musher, it would suggest the death was their fault, he said.

“But you shouldn’t consider people at fault until you consider the evidence.”

McCowan compared it to a baby, strapped safely in a child seat, dying in a car that was struck by a speeding truck.

“Do you throw the parents driving the car in jail?” he said.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”

Even though there is nothing those mushers could have done, they are out their beating the daylights out of themselves, said McCowan.

“And it’s sad, but people and dogs die everyday.”

Inhumane treatment of dogs is a huge no-no, he added.

“If someone is found complicit, their career is over, and it results in a huge hammer.”

If a musher is censured in the Quest they cannot run the Iditarod, and vice versa.

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