The 37th Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race will soon have a winner.
2019 winner Brent Sass is leading Tagish’s Michelle Phillips on the final stretch of trail from Braeburn to Whitehorse as of 10 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Sass reached the final checkpoint in Braeburn at 3:37 p.m. on Feb. 10 with 11 dogs on the line and left at 11:37 p.m. after sticking around for the mandatory eight-hour layover.
Phillips arrived in Braeburn at 4:14 p.m. on Feb. 10, also with 11 dogs on the line, and left at 12:14 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Sass is just under 50 kilometres from the finish line and Phillips is approximately 30 km behind Sass.
Snow began to fall as Sass and Phillips neared Braeburn, slowing down both teams.
“It slowed us down a lot,” said Sass while prepping his team for the eight-hour rest. “You had to sort of shut off the fact you were all of a sudden going two miles an hour slower and just focus on moving forward.”
Phillips had been the first musher out of Carmacks, leaving at midnight the night of Feb. 9 and taking more than an hour lead on Sass who left at 1:06 a.m. on Feb. 10.
Sass said he passed Phillips during the night and went to the end of Mandanna Lake before camping.
“I went all the way to the other side of the lake so I could look and see her maybe five miles in advance,” said Sass. “I got to my camping spot and I was hoping for three hours. At like two hours and 40 minutes, I saw the headlamp.”
He said he put booties on his team and packed up camp.
“She went by and 10 minutes later I took off,” said Sass. “She was up in front for a little while and it was pretty apparent I was going a little bit faster - not a lot, but a little bit - and we caught up to her.”
Sass said he wanted to ride behind Phillips because the two teams were still 50 km from the checkpoint, but that when Phillips stopped, he kept going.
“I went by and I said I’m not going to look back,” said Sass. “I just started ski poling and kicking like crazy.”
Further back in the pack, Cody Strathe reached Braeburn at 7:43 a.m. in third place with nine dogs on the line.
Three-time winner Allen Moore is currently on the trail between Carmacks and Braeburn, having left Carmacks at 10:03 p.m. on Feb. 10.
Moore said he stopped in Carmacks both to rest the team and himself, but also to keep pressure on Strathe ahead of him.
“If I made an extraordinary effort, then I’d probably lose two or three dogs doing it,” said Moore. “So I put the pressure on them. They don’t know what I’m doing. They’re out there saying when is he going to get here?”
That unknown, Moore said, can make it tough on a musher.
“Usually when that happens you don’t get near as much sleep if you’re a musher, when you’re worried about somebody coming up behind you,” said Moore. “It starts to wear on you.”
Moore said he was comfortable with where he was in the field.
“You get a point in the race where you’re not comfortable and trying to position yourself,” said Moore. “You get as far as you can get, when then you might as well relax a little bit and enjoy it.”
Torsten Kohnert and Ryne Olson are both also on the trail to Braeburn, having left Carmacks at 3:53 a.m. and 7:09 a.m. respectively on Feb. 11.
Rookie musher Nora Sjalin is on the trail from Pelly Crossing to Carmacks, as are Richie Beattie and Rob Cooke.
Pat Noddin is resting in Pelly Crossing and Red Lantern Olivia Webster is still making her way to Pelly Crossing.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org