Fairbanks, AK - Three Yukon Quest sled dog teams crossed the finish line over night. But the three mushers have very different feelings about how the race played out for them this year.
When Ed Hopkins arrived for the start of this year’s Yukon Quest, the quiet, easy going Canadian knew he had a competitive dog team. “I’m going to try and giver her,” he smiled. “ ’m just ready for it. I’ve been ready to go a longtime ago.”
Hopkins, from Tagish, Yukon has run the Quest five other times: He’s only placed in the top ten one other time. “I guess I was just camping along, but I was also just kind of feeling it out,” he said. “I haven’t done it for a while and I was just comparing myself to everybody else and I kind of left that last race knowing I should have done a lot better.”
This year, he crossed the finish line in 3rd place, a day behind the top finishers Brent Sass and Allen Moore. “Things just seemed to be rolling pretty good and it snowballed into something pretty good for me I guess,” he said.
Hopkins finished with eight dogs. He says six of them are rookies to racing. “I’ve been working with this group of dogs for the last three years and I knew what was underneath the hood,” he said. “I put a lot of good stuff in there. It took me a while to get them up to this point. It took me a while but they are there now,” Hopkins said.
His team balked on Eagle Summit. Hopkins jokingly refers to the ordeal as ‘Eagle Plummet.’ He says it took him three tries before he final got the team up and over. “That’s the first time I ever spun out on that hill,” he said. “I had a little swing dog, I was three quarters of the way up the last little slope and she just turned the whole team around and I actually lost them, but my snow hook bounced out somehow. And then they spun around again so I basically had to hand winch them up.”
Hopkins spent almost all of the second half of the race travelling alone. “It was like living in my own bubble,” he said. “It’s hard, you have to keep motivated and in some ways it’s different on the dogs because if you’re around other teams, they can get excited, so it’s really up to me to keep them moving,” said Hopkins.
His team did keep moving, right past Hugh Neff somewhere along Birch Creek between Circle and Central. The former champion from Tok is not feeling good about how his race played out this year. “It hasn’t been a very smooth two weeks,” Neff said. “I’ve got some major issues with my body right now that I am dealing with. I’ve got carpal tunnel in both hands and my hands have been going to sleep on me a lot pretty tough to even hold onto the sled, to be honest.”
Early on, Neff tried to claim the lead, but he says his dogs just weren’t up to maintaining it. He blames a lack of training this year as well as a combination of injuries and illness. “Oh it’s been a rough race,” said Neff. “I’ve been basically constantly dealing with shoulder injuries when it was colder out and then I had some diarrhea issues that were happening towards the middle of the race and slowly the dogs are doing better now and their weight’s coming back but they were skinny there for a few days,” he said, “so it’s just been a process of trying to keep the ship afloat I guess you could say.”
Neff left the last checkpoint for the final run to the finish line just after Damon Tedford but a race never played out between the two teams.
In Two Rivers, the emergency room doctor from British Columbia put booties on his dogs’ paws for the last time. “Where it got stressful is just kind of at the end there where people stated saying ‘ hey man, you’re doing really good, you’re going to be rookie of the year.’ It’s not really why I’m here. It certainly is nice. I just kind of want to run my dogs,” said Tedford.
Tedford ran the race for the experience. He says it’s unlikely he will return to serious competition any time soon, but he plans to stay involved in the sport somehow.