Yukoner Michelle Phillips was the first musher to reach the Circle City checkpoint of the 37th Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race, arriving in Circle, Alaska, at 3:45 a.m. local time on Feb. 3.
The veteran musher was followed in by 2019 Quest winner Brent Sass at 4:29 a.m., veteran Cody Strathe at 4:32 a.m., and three-time winner Allen Moore at 5:27 a.m.
Phillips said her team was doing well.
“They’re moving along nicely. A couple little issues here and there, but overall pretty good,” said Phillips. “They’re starting to jell together as a team.”
She said Birch Creek — a notorious stretch of trail known for being long and cold — did not have any bad overflow and was “good.”
Phillips said she’ll be dropping one of her dogs, Indy, because of a sore back leg.
“I don’t think she needs to keep going,” said Phillips.
From Circle, mushers have a 96-kilometre stretch to the hospitality stop at Slaven’s Roadhouse and a further 160 km to Eagle, Alaska — the final checkpoint on the American side.
In Eagle, mushers are required to spend a four-hour mandatory layover before tackling the 1,042-m American Summit on the 240-km stretch to Dawson City where teams will have 36 hours of mandatory rest before resuming the journey to the finish in Whitehorse.
As of 7:30 a.m. local time, four mushers are resting in Circle, 10 are on the trail between Central and Circle, and one is resting at Central.
Earlier on Feb. 2 at the Central checkpoint — a general store, restaurant and hotel all rolled into one — the Superbowl provided the background noise as handlers, veterinarians and race officials waited for teams to arrive.
“Dog team coming in!” was the exclaimation from those seated nearest the windows, letting all inside know a new musher was arriving and creating a stir as people scrambled to zip up parkas and head outside.
Musher Jason Campeau arrived in Central at 3:24 p.m. local time, making it inside for a hot meal just after the Superbowl halftime show ended.
He and his team had a scary experience coming down Eagle Summit, with hardpacked ice making it impossible for Campeau to slow his sled. His dogs, too, were unable to find footing and he said his sled and dogs got tangled up during the incident.
“The downhill was not good. It wasn’t good,” said Campeau. “I was more worried for the dogs because they were free falling, so it was kind of tough on them. Some of them got wrapped up in the sled and stuff.”
He said that his dogs appear to have made it through unscathed, but that the experience was frustrating.
“I was a little frustrated with that because you work so hard to train them and keep them healthy,” said Campeau. “I’ve experienced it on this race going down Rosebud the other way where there was no snow. I guess my only concern is for the dogs. You never like to see a dog lose control — that was the part that frustrated me.”
Campeau suffered a concussion during his last Yukon Quest in 2018, and he said if he’d known the shape the trail was in he would not have attempted a descent.
“With my past concussions, I definitely wouldn’t have done that run if I knew it was like that,” said Campeau. “(It’s) not something I would recommend and hopefully I’ve told them that it’s pretty dangerous (and) to just give a warning to whoever else is coming through.”
Asked about her trip down Eagle Summit, Phillips echoed that it was not an easy run.
“It was pretty intense,” said Phillips. “It was drifted hard-packed snow with rocks and tundra. It was pretty wild.”
Further back on the trail at Mile 101, teams rested after ascending Rosebud Summit in preparation for climbing Eagle Summit and the steep descent.
Rob Cooke and his team were taking their mandatory layover of four hours — the layover can happen at either Mile 101 or Central — during the afternoon hours and Cooke said he was happy with his team over Rosebud Summit and the race as a whole so far.
“The dogs were super motivated,” said Cooke. “We were running up behind Chase (Tingle) and a couple other teams that were having some issues getting up there, but these guys were super motivated and really wanted to go for it.”
Tingle received a one-hour penalty per the race rules for replacing broken parts on his sled at the Mile 101 checkpoint. That penalty will be served in Dawson City.
Cooke said being in Mile 101 was a relief, given it appeared no bad weather was imminent.
“Last year we obviously had the issues on Eagle Summit,” said Cooke, alluding to the whiteout conditions he faced alongside Andrew Pace, Jason Biasetti and Deke Naaktgeboren. “It was kind of on my mind that we could get caught again, but there doesn’t seem to be any weather advisories.”
The News spoke with Cooke while Campeau was on the trail between Mile 101 and Central.
Cooke is one of the mushers on the trail between Central and Circle.
In the Yukon Quest 300, race leaders are on the trail between Central and Circle, including Yukoners Nathaniel Hamlyn and Claudia Wickert.
Once mushers in the 300 reach Circle, they’ll head back to Central and the finish line.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com