‘I lost my rabbit, and then those Quest dogs just started to trot,” William Kleedehn laughs.
It’s the finish of the Carbon Hill Sled Dog Race, and Kleedehn has just arrived in second place. The rabbit he speaks of is Kyla Boivin.
Kleedehn and race winner Blaine Walden were both looking for the younger musher out on the trail. Boivin had drawn the first starting position, and the two veterans were anticipating that little boost in spirits the dogs get when they catch up and pass another team.
“I kept looking for Kyla and she just wasn’t there,” said Walden at the race banquet. “I was thinking, she’s really moving today.”
But Boivin fooled them without even trying. Early in the race her dogs took a wrong turn and ended up back at the start. With her customary good spirits, she just got back in the lineup and headed out again, this time in last start position.
What with the detour, Boivin came last in the 48-kilometre race, and took home the red lantern award.
Kyla, who grew up on a trapline on the Stewart River, and has been handling sled dogs practically all her life, had to give up a chance at the Yukon Quest red lantern this year when a back injury, sustained early in the race, finally forced her out at Pelly Crossing.
“I haven’t had one of these in five years,” she said, holding up the last-place lamp.
Despite soft trail conditions, the first seven teams all broke three hours for the 48-kilometres trail, Walden turning in a respectable time of two hours and 35 minutes.
“I’m just glad it was cold,” he said, referring to his dogs’ heavy coats, which make them more suitable for cold-weather runs.
Kleedehn was three and half minutes slower. Annie Lake Road musher Kiara Adams placed third, by less than two minutes.
Beginning at the Lorne Mountain Community Centre, the Carbon Hill follows a hilly, historic mining trail down the Watson River Valley to Annie Lake and back.
It’s a one-day fun event for the whole family, with additional races for skijorers, sprint teams, and younger mushers.
Between races spectators and handlers retire to the community centre to warm up with coffee and chili. Now in its 12th year, the race had to be postponed from its usual start date in early February due to a lack of snow.
A total of 15 teams entered the 48-kilometre eight-dog race, but two failed to complete the course, taking a wrong turn at McConnell Lake and ending up on the shorter six-dog trail.
By comparison, the 16-kilometre, six-dog event went off without a hitch, despite an unusually high number of mushers who were running their first race ever.
Tagish musher Dave Johnson, fresh from a win in last week’s Chili Paw in Haines Junction, smoked round the hilly trail in just under 31 minutes. Johnson is off to Tok, Alaska, next week to compete in the Race of Champions, one of the world’s top sprint races.
After the main events, nine junior mushers competed in a three-kilometre, three-dog race organized by the Yukon Junior Association of Mushers.
On a challenging trail with two road crossings, three young mushers failed to finish the race. One went the wrong way, while two teams completed the trail, but without their mushers.
Of the six finishers in the three-kilometre race, the winning time was posted by Rachel Kinvig, whose brother Ben won a dog-mushing gold last week at the Arctic Winter Games.
Seven very junior mushers ran in a one-dog 200-metre dash, but no official times were posted, and no winner declared.
All told there were 70 entries into the various events at Lorne Mountain on Saturday, including five in the 16-kilometre three-dog skijor race, and two in the one-dog, 11-kilometre skijor.
The Annie Lake Road area is popular — for training and recreation — with dog mushers, and the trails are usually hard set long before race day.
However, this year’s unusual weather left organizers scrambling to create a good route because early winter snow failed to materialize and late-winter cold and winds caused hard drifts to form across the trail.
Race Marshal Hans Oettli was out grooming trail at 5 a.m. on race day. Conditions were softer than usual, mushers said, but still surprisingly good, all things considered.
With a show of hands at the race banquet, most mushers favoured permanently moving the race from its February date to mid-March.
The days are longer, and Yukon Quest mushers and dogs have had time to recover by then, though Daryl Sheepway, winner of the 16-kilometre skijor race, expressed reservations.
“The trail was great this year, but most years that would have been glare ice out there,” he said. “It would be a pretty hairy trail to skijor on ice.”
Race organizers will decide some time next season whether to move the start date ahead or not.