After they had travelled together for most of the Yukon Quest, Michelle Phillips dumped Dave Dalton in Pelly Crossing.
“She broke it off with me,” said Dalton, after coming across the finish line in third place at 10:44 p.m. Wednesday.
Both were racing for third place, and someone had to make a move.
Phillips took off, said Dalton with a laugh.
When the two mushers got to Pelly, they’d planned to rest five or six hours then run to Carmacks together.
“But after four hours, Michelle said, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving,’” said Dalton.
“And she left me.”
Dalton ended up passing Phillips, who was camped after McCabe Creek, about 50 kilometres from Carmacks.
Her white lead dog was sleeping on the trail, and Dalton almost ran it over.
Phillips wanted me to camp with her, he said.
“But she broke up with me — I said, ‘Get your dog out of the way, I’m going through.’”
Things seemed like they were back on again in Carmacks when the couple left five minutes apart, but Phillips didn’t catch up with Dalton.
Getting to know Phillips was the high point of the race — “Michelle and me laughing and joking,” said Dalton.
One of the lower points was mushing in his slippers.
About 16 kilometres past the Braeburn checkpoint, there was some overflow. But Dalton was prepared.
With 208-litre trash bags over his feet and legs, he managed to make it through the first two sections without getting wet.
He didn’t know that three hours later there would be another knee-deep section of frigid water.
The dogs skittered across. But Dalton and the sled crashed through, soaking his boots and legs.
He tossed his sopping boots in the sled and ran in his slippers until he got to the river.
“Then I changed into my mukluks,” he said.
Dalton didn’t want to stop for long. He was worried about Phillips
“I was always looking behind me to see where she was,” he said.
“I was just waiting for her to crawl up and pass me.”
But Phillips was too busy swimming in the overflow.
“The first one was so deep the dogs had to swim,” she said.
They didn’t want to, and got all balled up.
Trying to sort out the tangle, up to her thighs in water, Phillips kept sliding under the ice.
“At one point I just screamed, ‘Why does this have to be so hard?’” she said with a laugh.
She ended up unhooking each dog, walking them through the overflow and then pulling the sled through herself.
“It wasn’t that bad for me,” said Dalton, joking with Phillips about her fourth-place finish, 45 minutes behind him.
Dalton broke the ice and opened up the hole, she said.
“And what did you leave for (Brent) Sass?” said Dalton jokingly.
Sass was about two hours behind Phillips and finished in fifth place at 1:27 a.m.
The overflow also swallowed the first four dogs on Lance Mackey’s team during his winning run into Whitehorse on Tuesday.
“They said there was overflow — they didn’t say there was rapids,” said Mackey, waiting at the finish line for Dalton on Wednesday night.
“The water was just rushing through there, I’m surprised we weren’t swept away.”
He was amazed his team was able to clamber out of the icy hole, he said.
With soaking feet, Mackey pulled his boots off to try and wring them out while moving.
“And suddenly there were these berms and I had to put my bare foot down in the snow,” he said.
It wasn’t as bad as second-place finisher Ken Anderson’s experience, he added. Also barefoot trying to drain his boots, Anderson ended up having to brake with his bare foot, said Mackey.
And this side is supposed to be the good trail, said Phillips with a laugh.
She worked “so hard” to catch Dalton, she said.
“I was just sitting on the back of my sled,” he said with a grin.
At the finish line, Dalton’s team looked tired, lying in the chute.
But Phillips’ team trotted in with their tails wagging.
“They were loping coming in here,” she said.
“I’m really proud of the dogs.
“I’m just sad I lost so many early on.”
The bad trail on the Alaska side is to blame, she said, citing the horrendous jumble ice.
Despite her fourth-place finish and healthy team, Phillips isn’t sure she’d race the Quest again.
“I hope the Yukon Quest works on the trail and puts some money into it,” on the Alaska side, she said.
“Because in this race the most important things are the dogs and the trail.”
At the finish line, Mackey was sharing his trail horror stories with the crowd.
After getting ahead of the trailbreakers in some of the worst jumble ice the race has seen in years, Mackey was weaving his team of 13 dogs back and forth across the river, looking for a way through.
He’d been out there an hour and a half and was just about to turn around when he saw the trailbreakers coming on snowmachines.
When they caught up, Mackey was fuming, but he kept his cool.
He’d been following an old dog-sled trail that was made by a musher from Eagle who was trying to get to Circle.
But it was a terrible path over huge blocks of ice and holes, he said.
“The trailbreakers said, ‘You’d be better of following that old trail because we don’t know if we’ll make it through this,’” said Mackey.
“I almost punched them.”
He opted to wait until the breakers got a ways ahead.
But they weren’t making a dog-friendly trail, said Mackey.
They were just trying to get their machines through the ice. So there were switchbacks, huge cracks and ridiculously tight turns.
Mackey was even madder by the time he’d bashed and banged his way through the jumble ice.
The trailbreakers were waiting for him.
“They said, ‘Wow, you made it through that — good we’ll mark it as the trail then,’” he said, shaking his head.
They also offered Mackey a bundle of trail markers and asked him if he would help mark the trail.
“I’d be embarrassed if I was a trail breaker on the Alaska side,” he said.
Mackey wants to see a better trail next year.
“I don’t bitch about much,” he said.
“So if I’m bitching, it should probably be heard.”
Dalton earned US$20,000 for his third-place finish. “It pays the bills,” he said, drinking a Budweiser Mackey handed him at the finish line.
Dalton, who just finished his 18th Quest, is now hoping to surpass Frank Turner’s record, of attempting 24 of the 25 races.
Dalton’s dogs are going to get a couple months off, just going “on fun runs,” before heading up to the glacier for the summer to run heli-mushing tours.
Phillips is heading to the Kobuk 440 in April, before calling it a season.
With her $16,500, she’s planning to take her family on vacation.
“Probably to Belize or Cuba,” she said. “We’ve never gone on a holiday.”
Phillips is a mushing mom, visiting with her young son Keegan at the checkpoints.
“He’s a mushing orphan,” she said, with a laugh.
But he makes out pretty well; people buy him candy — he even had a tab at the Dawson checkpoint, she said.
“And Ed (Hopkins) is such a good dad.”
On her way to the finish line, Phillips was thinking of beer, she said.
“Want some of mine,” said Dalton with a grin.
Sass earned $14,500 for his fifth-place finish.
Veteran Kelley Griffin came in sixth at 10:24 a.m. Thursday, followed nine minutes later by Annie Lake’s Hugh Neff.
Dan Kaduce, Jean-denis Britten, Mike Ellis and Bill Pinkham are expected later Thursday.