Overnight, leading mushers made the climb over 3,600-foot Rosebud Summit, positioning themselves for the even bigger challenge: Eagle Summit. Morning hours are typically the best time to make the steady climb and precipitous descent of the often wind-scoured peak. Lead teams rested up at the Steese Highway Mile 101 checkpoint, prior to making the trek over the mountain, which tops out at nearly 3,700 feet. Two-time former Quest champion Hugh Neff of Fairbanks, and past front runner Dan Kaduce of Chatanika were among several mushers in the early lead this morning, as things begin to shake out after yesterday’s start saw 18 teams hit the trail in Two Rivers. Summit Quest 300 rules require rest at checkpoints, and as Lex Treinen reports, that already played into race tactics on day one.
Early Sunday morning, there are a lot of handlers sleeping in pick up trucks at a pullout on Mile 101 of the Steese Highway.
Mushers are still up an moving though, despite the -20 temperatures. The top mushers arrived in the morning darkness after maneuvering over Rosebud Summit. Despite different start times, the four top racers came in within an hour of one another.
His dogs are curled up fast as musher Deke Naaktgeboren feeds them in the yard next to the parking lot. He came into the checkpoint in fourth, just a minute behind the racer in front of him. But Naaktgeboren says he barely made it, after losing the trail at the top of the Rosebud Summit in the pitch dark.
“We're veering off in this direction when the trails, you know, way to the left, like, no idea what's down there. And all we see is like the darkness below to like, where the trail is that over on the right,” he said.
And bare rocks at the top and thigh-high snowdrifts that were as hard as concrete made for a bouncy run.
“It was wild, like always, so I love it,” he said.
But Naaktgeboren had one of the fastest runs over the Summit, putting in time on competitors, even though he had rested an extra hour back at the previous stop. He says it had nothing to do with the musher behind the sled.
“My leader Marley when he's on, and he's definitely on right now,” he said.
The burly and fluffy three-year-old conquered Rosebud three years ago as a 1-year-old.
As the clear morning sun hits the valley, the top teams take off for their next challenge over Eagle Sumit. Lucky for them, it’s not too hot when they get there.
But unfortunately, the windblown pass doesn’t have much snow, and some mushers lose sled runners.
With a mandatory 6-hour rest in Central, racers pushed the pace into the checkpoint, and the top four arrive within 40 minutes of one another. Dogs are clearly tired from the day’s run in the midday sun.
Newcomer 28-year-old Eddie Burke Jr. surprised himself to be up with veterans like Hugh Neff. As he lays out straw for his dogs, Burke, who mushes Aaron Burmeister’s dogs in Nenana, says after that midday run, dogs need fluids.
“Some water mixed in there and get those fluids and plus, they get a lot of hydration from the meat as well. And there's a lot of moisture in there. Now I'm gonna go around with some turkey skins,” he said.
But Burke says he’s still hasn’t had to push his dogs yet, he’s just enjoying the ride. A few meters away, Hugh Neff, as usual, says he’s skeptical of younger mushers.
“I'm only 53 now, but I feel like a lot of these kids I gotta try to remember what their names are and stuff. And I just hope that they're getting on the internet not worried about winning races, but studying the history of this race because that's what it's all about,” he said.
But despite Neff’s dubious knowledge about the internet, he says he has a soft spot for Burke, who he met at a bar in Anchorage.
“Him and his buddies were just mushaholics, they had a table forum that they have on the internet like a page to talk about dog races. Now look at this kid. He's out here, right and I love this kid,” he said.
Neff says unlike the younger mushers, he’s not listening to any music. He’s got a different strategy for staying focused out on the trail that ties him to the race.
“I just have conversations with people that I've met throughout the years. I mean, just because a person is not on this earth anymore, doesn't mean their spirit is amongst us,” he said.
Neff is hoping that keeps him focused for the upcoming run on Birch Creek. But the musher to beat is still Dan Kaduce, who has led through the past two checkpoints. The former 1000-mile finisher and a rookie of the year at the Iditarod, Kaduce seems calm at the checkpoint in Central.
And he has a secret weapon for the next run.
“I came up and set the trail myself in January. And then I ran the team over back and forth over it three times. So I'll know where I'm at all the time,” he said.
With the hypnotizing windy turns of Birch Creek, figuring out a way to stay lucid on their way into Circle will be key for all mushers. Especially since they have to turn around and do it again.