When the first musher rolled into Circle just after six on Monday morning, he was hungry.
But Dan Kaduce wouldn’t get a hot breakfast for another two hours.
“Circle is usually a wonderful checkpoint,” said Kaduce’s handler and wife Jodi.
In past years the fire hall, which acts as the checkpoint, has been laden with wild game, stew, macaroni salad, homemade bread and baking, pizza, lasagna, and cabbage rolls.
But this year, there is just a pot of chili in the corner behind the fire truck.
Kaduce was told if he wanted more food, to head up the road to the school.
But breakfast didn’t start until 8 a.m.
And Kaduce would have to pay for it.
After spending the night on Birch Creek, where temperatures hovered around minus 60, the first thing Kaduce went looking for was hot water for his dogs.
“There was running water, but it was cold,” he said.
There wasn’t even hot water to mix up the oatmeal Kaduce ended up pulling out of his sled.
It’s not really fair, said Jodi.
“Because other mushers pulling in a couple hours later could get a hot breakfast at the school right away.”
By lunch, Kaduce got to the school to eat a meatball sub.
He didn’t realize it would cost him.
“So now, I have to walk all the way back to my sled to get money,” he said, munching on the sandwich.
It eats into his time, said Jodi.
Every year the Circle school sells food to media, officials, handlers and the rest of the Quest entourage to fundraise for its annual trip.
But mushers have always eaten free at the fire hall.
“I understand the fundraiser, and it’s great,” said Jodi.
“But the school’s timing (like an 8 a.m. breakfast) is not for the mushers.”
When rookie Mike Ellis arrived in Circle, he wanted some drinking water.
“There’s water for the mushers, but it’s warm,” said his handler.
“There’s no drinking water?” said Ellis in disbelief.
That’s when his handler informed him that if he needed more food he would have to go to the school, a five-minute walk away.
There’s a pot of chili inside the door that’s free, said Circle’s race-logistics co-ordinator Josh Horst.
“And if the community shows up with food, which they do sporadically, then mushers can eat that too.”
By afternoon, some stuffing, pasta salad, fish stew and granola bars had arrived.
But it was too late for Kaduce, said Jodi.
Hot water for feeding the dogs isn’t necessary, added Horst.
“Mushers are fully capable of heating water, they’ve just gotten used to the luxury of hot water and are spoiled.
“They forget the reality of where they are.”
Slaven’s cabin, 93 kilometres past Circle on the Yukon River won’t have hot water either, said a race official.
Lance Mackey and Brent Sass were filling up fuel for their dog-food cookers when they heard the news.
“So make sure you bring enough fuel to heat all the water you’ll need,” said the official, standing outside the fire hall on Monday.
Slaven’s usually has hot water, but this year, officials and vets didn’t get to the cabin in time.
The extreme temperatures grounded flights and, for a while on Monday officials weren’t sure if Slaven’s would even be operational.
Just hours before heading out, Mackey and Kaduce learned the cabin was open and there would be straw there after all.
The mushers’ food drops, also grounded by the weather, were being flown into Eagle on Monday as well.
Trail, what trail?
The Quest trail is not well marked this year, says Lance Mackey.
Even after running over it and winning for the last three years, the reigning champ had some trouble staying on track.
“First off, the markers are painted black,” said Mackey.
“So they’re kind of hard to see, especially at night.
“Maybe you should paint them another colour,” he told a group of race officials.
The reflective tape on the markers was hard to see too, said rookie Phil Joy.
“It’s just a little sticker, and some of them you can’t see unless you’re standing right on top of them.”
The trail marking has been bad, he said.
There are not enough markers and they’re not in the right spots.
Joy and Mackey passed a number of places where teams had trouble or had to turn around.
Mackey even ended up on the wrong trail at one point. Luckily, Annie Lake’s Hugh Neff was coming back, after realizing he too had taken a wrong turn.
After running into Neff head on, Mackey turned his team around and found the trail.
He also found a pair of mitts.
“You could see a team had gotten tangled up there and it was a big mess,” he said.
When Mackey passed Joy he asked if the mitts were his, but they weren’t.
By the time he passed former champ Bill Cotter, Mackey had forgotten about them.
When he remembered, he stopped and waited for Cotter to catch up.
“He was pretty happy I had them,” said Mackey.
“His hands were cold.”
When Cotter ran up to get the mitts, his team got tangled. So, he threw off his gloves, untangled the team and started running back to his sled.
“I had to yell at him — he’d forgotten his gloves,” said Mackey with a laugh.
There was some confusion about where the trail was, said frontrunner Dan Kaduce.
“But I knew where it went.”
Teams got lost coming out of Mile 101 and running into the first checkpoint at Chena Hot Springs, added Mackey.
The trail was a little shy on markers, said Tagish musher Michelle Phillips.
“I ended up going up and down the runway (at the airport) a bit,” she said.
Coming into Circle, Joy just “completed another shitty section of a shitty trail,” he said.
Heading out on the Yukon River toward Eagle, Joy is hoping it will improve.
“I would love some nice smooth trail,” he said.
“But it’s not going to be smooth, it’ll be jumble ice — rough on the dogs and rough on the musher.”