02-09-22 Yukon Quest Wrap Up
(Fairbanks, AK.) Winner Brent Sass was followed across the Quest 300 finish line in Fairbanks by Matt Hall, Deke Naaktgeboren and Jennifer LaBarr over the last day. The other three 350 starters: Cody Strathe, Misha Wiljes and Rob Cook scratched earlier in the race. Meanwhile, all 11 mushers who started the Quest 200 finished their race in Central. This year’s Quest was again pandemic modified, but still challenged mushers.
It was a decidedly low-key affair as second place finisher Matt Hall and his 9 dogs crossed the finish line at the Big I Pub in downtown Fairbanks around noon on Tuesday. A few dozen onlookers watched as Hall’s team swooped off the river into a fenced off parking lot of the Big I.
Hall ski poled his way down the last 40 Chena River to give his team an extra boost after they’d trudged through hundreds of miles of fresh snow in the lowlands, or wind drifts on the summits.
“The last two days of the three days, we just broke trail the whole time, it was just all we did just drift after drift,” he said.
The Quest was challenging this year, as it always is, said Hall. Teams running the 350-mile race had to navigate Eagle and Rosebud summits twice this year. The second time up Eagle Summit was particularly challenging, Hall said.
“It was super slippery,” he said “Once we once we started up the steep climb, had to stop and take all the booties off the dogs because they couldn't we couldn't even get the sled to the steep part, the front six would just slide back down.”
In all, he had to drop 5 dogs due to sore shoulders or feet due to the punchy snow, but he said it was nothing serious.
3rd place finisher Deke Naaktgeboren pulled into the finish a few hours after Hall. His team was led by a beefy hound named Marley, a speed junkie Naaktgeboren saves for the flat sections of trail.
“I like to put Marley out in the lead and just let him eat trail,” he said.
Naaktgeboren said the biggest challenge for his team was descending Rosebud Summit the second time. It was the middle of the night on the treeless tundra. Trail stakes were hardly visible in the darkness, and Naaktgeboren said he had to trust his dogs to find the way down. Sometimes they didn’t account for the driver in back, who started getting rocked as the dogs scampered over snow drifts.
“Iit's like a boat hit in a wave – bigger wave, bigger wave, bigger wave – and then the boat flips,” he said. “That’s exactly what I look like on my sled and I said did a barrel roll and snow hook hit me in the head.”
He let go of his sled handlebars – “That’s the number one rule of dog mushing, to never let go of the sled” – but fortunately his snow hook caught a few yards down the trail.
“It’s one of the more terrifying moments of my mushing life,” he said.
While the trail was sometimes frightening, mushers were uniformly enthusiastic about one thing: a new rule went into effect this year that allowed teams to log half of their total rest on the trail instead of in checkpoints.
Naaktgeboren said even though he didn’t avail himself of the rest on trail, it made it more exciting for racers.
“When your competitors have the rest of the checkpoint and they need four hours, then you know they're gonna stay four hours. But now they might stay two hours at a checkpoint because they're gonna camp somewhere along the trail for two hours,” he said “It makes things a little more dynamic.”
Racers were required to record their rest in a logbook, and the data was corroborated with GPS trackers. Race winner Brent Sass said it was hard sometimes with his poor penmanship and cold fingers. But he said the trail rest was key for him to finish with all of his 14 dogs. He said the rule is good for dog care in general.
“The more flexibility mushers are given to run their dogs properly the better the race is going to go for the dogs and the humans,” he said.
After a successful test run, race director Doug Grilliot echoed the mushers’ enthusiasm – and said he wants to take it to the next level.
“It's going to happen, you know, when we have the 1000 miler – it will happen,” he said.
Grilliot says the Quest organization is in a good place to hold the 1,000-miler next year after getting a boost from federal COVID relief money. He said long as mushers sign up – and COVID doesn’t throw another wrench in the plan, the 1000-mile race will happen in 2023.