Veteran Neff is first to Dawson in Quest

Four ounces of Klondike gold is Hugh Neff's if he can make it to the finish line of the Quest in his hometown of Fairbanks. The defending champ was the first to reach Dawson City.

Four ounces of Klondike gold is Hugh Neff’s if he can make it to the finish line of the Quest in his hometown of Fairbanks.

The defending champ was the first to reach Dawson City – the halfway point – in the 30th annual Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race on Tuesday.

The gold, valued at $6,700, is awarded to the first musher to reach Dawson and then finish the race.

Neff, 45, arrived in Dawson at 1:10 p.m., two hours ahead of current second-place’s Allen Moore.

“It’s all about Mother Nature,” said Neff. “The trail-breakers are getting as much of a workout as we are this year. They had to do a lot of re-routing because of open water and issues of the like.

“The race between Allen and I – I don’t think either one of us is going to be able to get away from the other one. We’re running it at like-minded speed and travel patterns. It’s going to be a good one.

“I’m just glad I got to the gold first.”

Neff has run the Quest every year since 2000 with the exception of 2004. In addition to winning last year, he placed third in 2010 and 2005, and second in 2009. Neff also took fifth in the 2011 Iditarod.

“The dogs know where they’re going, I’ve got a lot of veterans on the team, which helps, and it looks like Allen and I are back at it again,” said Neff.

The Quest champ is running with eight dogs from his winning team last year, “including some main leaders, and I have some younger dogs,” said Neff. “Most of these dogs have done the Iditarod before, so they’re all experienced dogs.”

Allen Moore, who was first to Dawson last year, arrived in Dawson at 3:09 p.m. on Tuesday. The Alaskan from Two Rivers, who is in his third Quest, placed second last year and sixth in 2011.

Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, Alaska, was third into the former Yukon capital at 8:10 Tuesday evening. In his first Quest last year Berkowitz placed fourth and was named Rookie of the Year.

Six teams had reached Dawson by press time on Wednesday morning. Whitehorse’s Susan Rogan is the leading Yukoner in 10th place, ahead of Whitehorse’s Normand Casavant in 11th.

Tagish’s Ed Hopkins is 13th, one spot up from Carcross’ Crispin Studer. Dawson’s Brian Wilmshurst is on his way to his hometown in 16th place.

Four-time Quest champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks is towards the back of the field of 25 mushers in 20th place.

Going into its fifth day, the Quest has only had one scratch so far. Ed Abrahamson of Fairbanks decided to drop from the race in Carmacks on Monday.

“It’s been going exceptionally smooth,” said race marshal Doug Gilliot. “It’s been a very, very good race so far.”

The race has had only one significant hiccup. Extreme weather conditions, with heavy snowfall and high winds, have made the treacherous American Summit near the Alaskan border impassable. Race organizers have rerouted the trail to follow the Yukon River between Dawson and Eagle, Alaska. The change shaves about 80 kilometres off the race length.

“The route change was taken care of a couple of days ago and there’s absolutely no issue with that,” said Gilliot. “It’ll be all ready to go when the mushers get there in two days, tops.”

Late Tuesday evening, Quest officials extended the mandatory layover in Dawson from 36 hours to 40. The extension was made to insure race personnel will arrive at the next checkpoint at Eagle, Alaska, with time to prepare for the arrival of teams.

With the extension, Neff will be back on the trails at 5:10 a.m. Thursday.

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com