When Yukon mushers Gerry Willomitzer and William Kleedehn left the Central checkpoint Monday night, the wind was blowing so hard they thought a tree might fall on one of their teams.
Blowing snow had completely covered the Quest trail and the teams were struggling through enormous drifts.
“It was the same blizzard that was blowing over Eagle summit,” said Willomitzer.
“And the trees looked like tall grass in a field on a windy day,” he said.
“The wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t see my lead dogs in my own headlamp.”
Kleedehn and Willomitzer have been travelling together for most of this year’s Quest and should have the same story to tell.
But their descriptions of the trail into Circle, Alaska, were markedly different.
Willomitzer had a map and they decided to camp at boat launch to rest their teams.
However, trying to see the shore in the blowing snow proved difficult.
“I would shine my headlamp towards shore, but all I could see was the light reflected in the snow,” he said.
They teamed up.
Kleedehn would shine his light on the shore and Willomitzer would search for the boat launch.
They found the launch and camped in the trees.
“To be frank, we went out and passed those other guys Hans (Gatt), Hugh (Neff) and Lance (Mackey), but the wind was blowing so hard we decided to find a hiding spot and watch when the other guys went by to break the trail,” said Kleedehn.
“There is always someone eager out there.
“We are cowards who are avoiding any extra exertion on the dogs — this is the game you have to play.
“Sebastian (Schnuelle) was in front and he was hiding out too.”
The mushers were playing hide and seek.
Drinking hot tea at the Circle checkpoint, Kleedehn looked smug.
It was a great, broken trail into Circle, he said.
And when will it be his turn to break trail?
“Hopefully the last couple of hundred yards into Whitehorse,” he laughed.
But Willomitzer, getting ready to bootie-up his dogs outside, told a different story.
“We saw Mackey, Neff and Gatt go by and left an hour and a half later, but the trail was already blown in,” he said.
“There was a base under there, but it was hard to find and it was soft coming in here.”
So, which was it — Kleedehn’s great trail or Willomitzer’s blown-in trail?
The Quest is a dog race, it demands first-rate dog care, mushing skills and a tremendous amount of stamina.
But it is also a psychological battleground.
Mushers will talk loudly about their tactics, the distances they are going to cover, where they plan to stop, then they will get out on the trail and do things differently.
It is not just about who has the fastest dog team, it is also about who has the best strategic plan and the best poker face.
The first team out of Circle Monday was Schnuelle at 11:04 p.m. Gatt followed roughly 30 minutes later. Soon after, Neff and Mackey left 15 minutes apart. They too have been travelling together for most of the Quest.
“I really wish we could all have worked together collectively and stayed here till 4 a.m.,” said Willomitzer.
The temperature is dropping and every hour the trail is getting harder and better, he said.
“But every time a team goes over the trail, they chew it up — it is going to be a soft trail leaving.”
He and Kleedehn left just after 1 a.m., about 15 minutes apart.
Tagish musher Michelle Philips left next at two in the morning, followed two minutes later by Alaska’s David Dalton.
Kelly Griffin left at 2:22 a.m. in 9th place.
Three hours later, Alaskan rookie Richie Beattie left followed by Wayne Hall and Yukoner Kyla Boivin, who left at 6:40 a.m.
The five mushers who were lost on Eagle summit, Kiara Adams, Saul Turner, Yuka Honda, Phil Joy and Jennifer Cochran cannot continue the race after their evacuation by Blackhawk helicopter.
The rescue has stirred up some controversy. Apparently, these mushers weren’t given the opportunity to stay on the summit and continue with the race, according to various news sources.
And several mushers rescued, including Turner, did not want to be flown out.
Both Whitehorse dentist Paul Geoffrion and Alaska’s Russ Bybee and Rod Boyce scratched at the Mile 101 dog drop. Eric Butcher scratched between Central and Circle due to severe back problems.
So, 13 mushers are still in the race with Alaska’s Regina Wycoff eyeing the red lantern.
Wycoff arrived in Circle mid-morning Tuesday, roughly 12 hours after the frontrunners left.
But she is still feeling optimistic.
“The way I look at it, we are only 300 miles into this race,” she said.
“We have 700 more to go — so to say I am going to take the red lantern is opting out.
“I’m not going on a camping trip, I’m here to race.”
Mushers are now travelling 256 kilometres to the next checkpoint in Eagle, Alaska.
Most of this route follows the Yukon River and there are several cabins where mushers can rest and get hot food along the way.
This stretch of trail usually takes mushers around 36 hours.
Slaven’s cabin is the first rest stop, 93 kilometres from Circle.
Mushers started arriving there at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday morning. First in was Gatt, followed an hour later by Schnuelle.
Between 8:10 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Mackey, Neff and Kleedehn arrived.
An hour later Willomitzer, Philips and Dalton pulled in, followed by Griffin.
Beattie arrived at 2 p.m. and Boivin and Hall arrived after 8 p.m.
The first out of Slaven’s was Gatt at 11:45 a.m.
Schnuelle left an hour later after resting his dogs for five and a half hours.
Mackey and Neff left at 1 p.m. only one minute apart.
But Kleedehn didn’t leave until 2:30 p.m. giving his dogs a nice eight-hour rest.
Griffin, Philips and Dalton left between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Willomitzer left at 5:20 p.m.
Beattie left just after midnight, and Hall left Slaven’s at 3:25 this morning, followed by Boivin roughly two hours later.
There was a big moon setting over the old schoolhouse in Eagle, Alaska, when Hans Gatt pulled into the checkpoint at 7:06 a.m. Wednesday.
Within minutes his dogs were bedded down in straw and the vets were checking their gums, feet and bodies.
“Those are some good dogs out there,” said head vet Kathleen McGill as she walked back to the schoolhouse.
“It was a really slow run — that river is the shits,” said Gatt as he prepared dog food.
Quest trailbreakers arriving in Eagle last night confirmed the trail was soft and slow.
But it is still warmer than usual with temperatures hovering around zero Fahrenheit.
“I’ve been on that river when it was minus 65 with the wind blowing,” said head trailbreaker Mark Backes.
Gatt told Quest officials Hugh Neff was not far behind.
The next checkpoint is Dawson City, the halfway point.
The first musher into the Klondike town receives four ounces of gold.
In Dawson, mushers and teams face a mandatory rest of 36 hours.
Traditionally, mushers will try to haul into Eagle early to set them up for a good run into Dawson.