On Saturday, 334 frosty dogs left the Yukon Quest start chute on the Chena River in Fairbanks.
It was minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Preparing to leave, mushers had different strategies on how to run dogs in frigid temperatures.
“The dogs need a break when it’s this cold,” said Healy veteran Dave Dalton.
“They’re using lots of energy to stay warm so they need short runs and warm meals.”
Former Quest champ Bill Cotter agreed.
“They get dehydrated faster when it’s this cold,” he said.
“You’ve got to stop and get water in them, and get warm.”
But some mushers don’t like stopping in the cold.
“It’s better to keep moving, but slow,” said Wasilla veteran Kelly Griffin.
“If you don’t have good straw and stop, they’re just going to sit there shivering.”
It’s better to keep the dogs moving in the cold,” added rookie Julie Estey, former executive director of the Yukon Quest in Alaska.
Because teams were returning to their dog trucks after the first 160-kilometre stretch, there was talk that some mushers would run straight through to Chena without a rest.
It’s not a good idea, said Annie Lake’s Hugh Neff, who’s been known to push too hard at the start of past races.
“My mentor Lance (Mackey) said, don’t do it,” he said.
“And in a long race, especially with weather like this, you’re not going to win it the first day, but you might lose it.”
Frozen genitals are a major concern in the cold, said head vet Vern Starks.
Before leaving the start chute, vets had to scan every dog to read a rice-sized bar code injected under their skin.
It’s a precaution to ensure mushers don’t swap out dogs during the race.
But it was too cold for the scanners — the batteries kept dying.
“We have six scanners and lots of batteries, so we should get through them all,” said Starks.
Kneeling in the snow putting on dog booties, Dawson’s Ann Ledwidge was “terrified.”
“I was fine until an hour ago,” she said.
“Why am I doing this?”
If any dog’s booties fall off, Ledwidge was planning to stop right away to replace them because of the temperature.
“And I have fur coats for the boys,” she said.
Dawson trapper Debbie Nagano made Ledwidge fur flaps to cover her dogs’ penises.
“You have to make sure their balls don’t freeze off,” said Fairbanks’ rookie Phil Joy.
In the cold, dogs are more prone to coughs and pneumonia, he added.
Joy isn’t worried about 40 below. But when it drops to 60 or 70 below, it’s another story.
“That scares the crap out of me,” he said, mentioning a notorious stretch on Birch Creek after the Central checkpoint.
“But there’s not much you can do about it.”
Fairbanks’ veteran Brent Sass knows cold.
Before mushing dogs, he used to ski for the University of Fairbanks.
“In terms of training and recovery, I use the same thing that works on me on the dogs,” he said.
But Sass probably wouldn’t ski in these temperatures, he added.
“Of course it’s hard on the dogs,” said Sass.
“But it all goes back to dog care and making sure they’re happy.”
It’s best just to go slow, said Ledwidge.
“I don’t want to do a 100-mile run right off the bat,” said Phillips.
“At 40 below, the dogs get really dehydrated.
“And it’s too early in the race for a big run.”
“I’m going to take a little longer than most people expect,” said the reigning champ.
“I’m going to camp for three or four hours.”
The first musher into Chena was Alaskan veteran Dan Kaduce, just before 8 p.m.
He ran it straight through.
“I thought a lot more people would do that,” said Kaduce, who was still running in first at Central, Alaska.
“I’m surprised more didn’t.
“If they’d known the rest was going to be 15 hours, more would have done that.”
It was minus 37 when he hauled into Central.
His team had just swum through overflow at the base of Eagle summit.
“I like hills, but not water and ice,” he said.
After conquering Eagle summit, Kaduce hit glaciation.
“The sled was upside down and I was dragging along holding onto the snow hook,” he said.
But he was prepared.
Kaduce dug crampons out of his sled and was able to walk his team across the ice.
Dalton was in two hours later, followed by Sass and Fairbanks’ rookie Ken Anderson.
Mackey is running roughly four hours behind Kaduce.
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org