Coming into Dawson, hungry for gold, Jon Little didn’t know he had a shadow.
The Kenai, Alaska, musher had a significant lead and had been spotted on King Solomon’s Dome, about 40 kilometres outside Dawson just after 6 p.m.
No one saw the dark team behind him slip over the mountain.
It wasn’t until Little hit the frozen Klondike River just outside Dawson, that he finally realized he was being stalked.
William Kleedehn and his 13 frosty dogs came out of the darkness and passed him a kilometre from town.
Two minutes ahead of Little, by the time he got to the checkpoint, Kleedehn pocketed the poke.
But the Carcross musher claims he wasn’t after the gold.
“I was running to win the race,” said Kleedehn, stopping briefly with his team on Front Street.
“I guess Jon had a different idea.
“His timing didn’t work out.”
Little didn’t stop to chat.
An hour later, Hugh Neff rolled into town.
“William and I had been travelling together almost the whole time,” he said.
But before they started climbing King Solomon’s Dome, Neff had to put a dog in his sled.
“Zero’s too big,” he said, opening his bag to reveal a furry black head.
“He can’t keep up to the smaller dogs; they were just flying.”
With Zero riding, Neff couldn’t keep up to Kleedehn.
But he never dreamed his travelling partner would catch Little.
“That’s awesome,” said Neff, when he found out.
“No offence to Jon,” he added. “But William and I are buddies.”
Neff didn’t stick around too long.
“I got to get to the bar,” he said with a grin.
At the checkpoint just before the mushers started rolling in, a cellphone rang.
It was Little’s wife, calling his handler to see if her husband had won the gold.
“No news yet,” said Mike Barnett.
Little has a nickname, said Barnett, who’s known him for years.
“We call him fourth-place Jon because he never wins – he doesn’t push his dogs.”
Little’s a soft-spoken guy, said Barnett.
“He’s laid back and in tune with his dogs and it shows in how his dogs perform.”
Barnett was not the only one cheering for Little.
“I usually don’t root for anyone,” said Jerry van Dyke, an Ontario tour operator who brings guests along the Quest trail.
“But Jon had that tragic accident before the Quest.”
Just a few weeks before the race started, Little was on a training run in Kenai. He had a team hooked up to an ATV and Barnett was driving a second team behind him.
There was a road crossing and Little got across safely. But when Barnett went to cross a speeding truck flew over the hill.
He tried to hold his team back, but they were revved up chasing the lead team.
“The brakes went out on the four-wheeler,” said Barnett.
The guy in the truck didn’t slow down or swerve, he said. “Four dogs died instantly, and another was badly injured.”
The vet bill is over $3,500, said van Dyke. “So he could use that (Dawson) gold to help pay it.”
The accident hit Little hard.
“He has a small kennel, with only 24 dogs,” said Barnett.
“And he’s doing well considering what happened.
“It’s good to see him persevere and come through.
“I hope he’s not dwelling on it out there,” he added.
Little isn’t very talkative, said Neff.
“It’s like he’s in his own little world.
“We’re barely able to get a word out of him.”
Although Kleedehn beat Little into Dawson for the gold, Little is still technically ahead.
Factoring in the difference in their start times Little actually beat Kleedehn to Dawson by 16 minutes.
Whitehorse musher Hans Gatt arrived in fourth place, almost two hours behind Neff. And hour later, Sebastian Schnuelle arrived, followed by Brent Sass.
Tagish musher Michelle Phillips came in 7th at 7:35 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Little will be the first to leave Dawson, heading up the Yukon river at 10:50 a.m. on Thursday morning.
Only two of the 29 mushers running this year’s race have scratched so far.
Dawson musher Jean-Denis Britten scratched in Pelly after three of his main leaders were injured in overflow on the trail, and BC rookie Jerry Joinson left Pelly but returned and scratched.
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org.