On Tuesday morning, rookie Julie Estey blew out her knee in the jumble ice 77 kilometres before Slaven’s cabin.
“I placed my foot out for stability, it smacked a piece of ice and turned and there was immediate pain,” said the former executive director of the Quest on the Alaska side.
“I just lay there screaming.”
At first Estey thought she’d torn her anterior cruciate ligament, an injury she’s had before.
“It felt just like that,” she said.
Estey started bawling.
“I thought my race was over,” she said.
But then, the pain subsided.
Estey set up camp in the sun and rested for about three hours.
She didn’t want to give up.
“It was so nice out there on the river,” she said.
“It was a pure joy, Yukon Quest moment.”
In better spirits, she decided to head on to Slaven’s rather than turn around and run the 16 kilometres back to Circle.
“At that point my knee felt much better, and I talked myself into thinking it wasn’t hurt so much as just tweaked,” she said.
“It never even occurred to me to turn around.”
Things were going well at first, and Estey thought she might be able to continue on with the race.
But then she hit another section of jumble ice.
“There were cliffs on either side of the river and jumble ice as far as I could see,” she said.
As soon as she was in it, Estey knew she was in trouble.
“My knee was like goo,” she said.
“I was in pain on the ground four times. My knee would dislocate then go back in, and the last time it almost didn’t.
“My dogs saved me.”
Estey would pull her sled around a chunk of ice and then ease the dogs forward. At the next corner, she’d call up to them to stop, ease the sled around and continue.
“It was like driving trapline dogs,” she said.
And it was amazing they kept stopping and waiting. “My dogs don’t do that.”
At so many points, Estey felt like stopping and camping, but she pushed on for what seemed like forever.
“And finally I came around this corner and saw a light,” she said.
“Then my survival instinct kicked in — I got there on sheer adrenalin.”
At Slaven’s, Estey still didn’t want to scratch.
“When I think of all I went through to do this,” she said, her tears welling up outside the Eagle checkpoint on Thursday.
“I quit my job, did two qualifiers, went through that cold and over Eagle Summit ….”
Estey broke down.
“I knew I shouldn’t go forward but I wasn’t ready to quit,” she said, wiping her eyes.
Alan Hollman, the vet at Slaven’s, tried all sorts of splints on her knee, but the more she moved it, the more serious the injury appeared.
“I have different movement than when I tore my ACL,” she said, waving her sore leg around.
“But I can’t move it certain ways; I think it’s my MCL (medial collateral ligament).”
Estey knew she couldn’t go on.
“I didn’t want to end up in the jumble ice with a blown out knee and a depleting supply of dog food,” she said.
It really hit home when she managed to get a flight out and started breaking down her sled with the park staff at Slaven’s.
The last night at the cabin, Estey slept under the stars with her team.
“It was beautiful,” she said, her voice getting shaky.
Estey doesn’t know if she will ever run the race again.
“I have to go back to work at the museum and make another $10,000,” she said.
And knee surgery could change things.
“It’s a hard way to leave it,” she said, sitting in the Eagle checkpoint chatting with musher Ann Ledwidge.
“But I had the adventure of a lifetime.”
The beaver beard
Brent Sass wears glasses.
That may seem a rather innocuous fact.
But when the Fairbanks musher is running dogs at minus 40, wearing glasses becomes quite a feat.
As soon as a neck warmer is pulled over his nose, Sass’s warm breath rises and frosts up his specs.
On the Copper Basin 300, Sass had to choose between seeing and freezing his face.
“I got pretty bad frostbite,” he said.
Sass knew he had to figure something out before heading out on the Quest.
That’s when he came up with the beaver beard.
“I trapped a few beavers this year and their fur is so warm,” he said.
Using straps from an old headlamp, Sass created a beard and mustache combination out of beaver.
It works, he said.
And instead of having to sit and wait for it to melt and drip dry, like mushers sporting real beards, Sass just pulls off his beaver facial hair and hangs it by the fire.
It was such a cozy solution, Sass also created a jockstrap out of beaver fur to keep his privates toasty.