Paul Geoffrion started the 2008 Yukon Quest with sparks flying from his sled runners.
It wasn’t intentional.
Two hours before reaching the first checkpoint at Chena Hot Springs, the Annie Lake musher followed what he thought was the Quest trail and ended up on the highway.
Apparently the actual trail took a sharp right just before the road. But that turn wasn’t marked.
To slow down his team, Geoffrion flipped the sled on its side.
“I was dragged down the road on my knees with sparks under the sled for 500 feet,” he said.
Then, he saw a truck coming.
Geoffrion’s headlamp was lying behind him on the highway — it had fallen off when he flipped the sled.
“So I could not signal the truck,” he said.
“And the gap between us was closing fast.
“I was thinking will this truck see us and stop?
“I was scared he was going to kill my dogs.”
The truck driver finally saw the 13 pairs of eyes and the reflective tape on the dogs’ coats and stopped just in time.
He helped Geoffrion get his team back to the trail.
Veteran musher Bill Pinkham, rookie Didier Moggia and champ Lance Mackey also ended up on the road.
Geoffrion’s friend and neighbour, rookie Jean-denis Britten, managed to make it to Chena because he was following another team.
“It was pure luck,” said Geoffrion.
“But when you have to rely on pure luck, it’s not a good race.”
At the unmarked right turn he’d missed the first time, the only marker Geoffrion saw was 30 metres after the turn, in the bushes.
And it had no reflective tape on it.
“I would say about half the pack got lost of the way to Chena,” said Geoffrion.
And when mushers complained to the race official at the checkpoint all he said was, “I know.”
There was a big bundle of trail markers at the checkpoint, added Geoffrion.
When he got to Chena, Geoffrion learned race officials had changed the trucking time from 10 hours to 15.
“If I’d know this, I would have run straight from Fairbanks to Chena,” he said.
“My team has 2,000 miles in training and can do it.”
The additional five-hour delay put the back of the pack on Eagle Summit in the dark.
Maybe the trail up the 1,123-metre summit “was marked well enough for daylight, but not for the dark and whiteout conditions,” said Geoffrion.
On the way up the mountain his team got lost at least 25 times, ending up in glaciation “on razor-sharp rocks and in deep snow.”
The trail would lead over these huge frozen mounds of glare ice for 150 metres “and you couldn’t see where the trail went at the end, so you couldn’t tell your dogs were to go,” he said.
Finally his dogs had enough.
About 300 metres after musher Bruce Milne passed them, heading back to Mile 101, Geoffrion’s dogs turned around on a big mound of glaciation. Four of his males ended up in a fight over a female in heat.
After breaking it up, Geoffrion turned six of his dogs loose — “we weren’t going to kill ourselves going down that trail,” he said.
He didn’t care that it broke Quest rules to let his dogs free.
The Quest broke it’s own rules, said Geoffrion.
The rules state “the trail will be broken and marked prior to the race,” he said.
“And on January 22nd we receive a Yukon Quest trail report stating ‘the Quest will not run teams through known bad trail conditions and … will use trail proofing.’
“I read that to my dogs before the race and we were all sleeping like babies trusting them,” said Geoffrion.
And at the pre-race mushers meeting, “the trail was described to us as though it had been put in and marked all the way to the Canadian border, with some rough spots in the jumble ice.”
It was a lie, he said.
Champ Lance Mackey actually got ahead of the trailbreakers in the jumble ice. And when they finally caught him, they offered Mackey a bundle of trail markers to put in place.
“To make a secure trail in jumble ice, they need to be working on it a month before,” said Geoffrion.
“So they can’t argue the cold before the race made it impossible — it was already too late.”
The Alaska Quest board has been told time and again “that the most important thing for mushers is a safe trail for the dogs,” he said.
“Not a refurbished website.”
The organization needs some adequate lead dogs, said Geoffrion.
“Outstanding dog care on the Quest should not only be one of their slogans, it should be made possible by a decent and safe trail to run our dogs on,” he said.
“At the starting line in Fairbanks there were 296 tail-wagging dogs — at the finish line in Whitehorse there were only 120 dogs, including one in a sled, and they were not all wagging their tails.
“So much for a good life experience while running the trail with your buddies.”
If Geoffrion had completed this year’s Quest, he planned to go on to run the 2009 Iditarod.
“I wanted to master the Quest to go to the Iditarod with a clean record,” he said.
In 2003, Geoffrion finished the Quest, but ran it mostly alone at the back of the pack.
And in 2006, he was stopped by the storm on Eagle Summit.
Now, he’s giving up dogs.
“I’m going to buy a Harley and ride it to my sailboat in Florida,” he said.
Geoffrion is selling his Annie Lake kennel — the gear, dogs, outbuildings and the house.
A woman from Maine, who is interested in running a sled-dog rescue operation, might buy the place, he said.
“And I will live in the handler’s cabin.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to my dogs.”