Heading out of Dawson with Ken Anderson on his tail, Lance Mackey got lost.
“It’s my own damn fault,” said the three-time Yukon Quest champ
“I was running without a headlamp looking at the moon, and didn’t see the trail markers.
“Ironically, I’ve done it before in the same area.”
Two years ago, when the Quest finished in Dawson, Mackey took a wrong turn and travelled at least five hours out of his way, almost losing the race to Whitehorse’s Hans Gatt.
“Let’s just say, I know the backside of Dawson real well,” he said.
“And this time, I got to see the wind tower.”
When Mackey started climbing, he figured he was on King Solomon’s Dome, the 1,000-metre summit on the Quest trail.
“I thought I might be on the wrong trail, because I didn’t see any markers — but it looked kind of familiar,” he said.
A couple hours later, the road stopped at a tower.
By now, Mackey knew something was wrong.
“But I decided to stop and wait 15 minutes to see if Ken had taken the wrong trail too.”
When he didn’t show up, Mackey headed back down the mountain.
“When you turn a team around, it breaks their spirit,” he said.
“I sat and apologized to them for 15 minutes.”
The side trip took about four hours, said Mackey.
And it put Anderson in the lead.
Hauling into Pelly just after midnight on Monday, the Fairbanks musher was in a rush.
“I need to get my gear and drop a dog,” he said to the checker.
“Where’s my handler?
“Where’s my stuff — where are my food-drop bags?”
Leaving Dawson, Anderson didn’t see any tracks, he said, tearing through his drop bags, grabbing some kibble and snacks.
“So I figured (Mackey) was lost; then I began to worry I was lost, but there were markers. It was like the Twilight Zone.”
Mackey caught Anderson camping after the dome and rested with him.
“He did a 10-hour run to get there,” said Anderson, unhooking an exhausted dog from his gangline.
“I wanted to see where Ken was at,” said Mackey.
Mackey cut over two hours’ rest to leave when Anderson did.
But to keep up with Mackey, Anderson is also cutting rest time.
“He’s faster than me,” said Anderson.
“He gains about a half hour on an eight-hour run. So, I’m also cutting rest.”
Lying down at the checkpoint while Anderson filled his cooler with hot water, his team looked tired.
Neck in neck, Mackey and Anderson split up before Pelly.
Anderson camped behind Mackey, who was running in the lead.
And while Mackey was resting at Stepping Stone, 51 kilometres from Pelly, Anderson tried to sneak by.
But Mackey’s “savvy.”
“He had his dogs right on the trail,” said Anderson.
“So they barked and probably woke him up.”
Mackey left Stepping Stone an hour after Anderson blew by.
But by the time he reached Pelly, about four hours later, he was only half an hour behind him.
Mackey was also in a rush, but he took time to feed a snack to his dogs.
“Their attitude is not like it was last year at this time,” he said.
“They’re normally screaming and barking to go.”
However, none of Mackey’s dogs were lying down like Anderson’s. And as the musher zipped up his sled bag, the team started to bark and lunge ahead.
“That’s more like it,” said Mackey, walking up his team, petting every dog.
Tonya, his wife and handler, stepped aside and the string of dogs snaked out of Pelly with snow flying behind Mackey’s brake.
A few subtle commands brought the team through a couple of tough turns and he was gone.
Anderson’s handler had more trouble, falling and struggling to keep up as she led his leaders past the same tricky turns.
Now that he’s in front, he’s having more fun, Anderson said.
In Dawson, the musher was talking about holding back to save his team for the Iditarod. He placed seventh last year.
But now the Iditarod is a little further from his mind, he said with a laugh.
In Dawson, both mushers hoped to ignore the other’s strategy.
“It’s tough to put those blinders on,” said Anderson.
“But you can’t beat somebody playing their game.”
Mackey was also finding it hard to stick to his original plan.
It’s tempting to just hold back and run with Anderson, he said.
“Because know I’m faster.”
But it could be disastrous.
“All it would take is one wrong turn,” said Mackey.