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Birch Creek Tests Yukon Quest Mushers

Lex Treinen
Yukon Quest Alaska 300 champion Matt Hall and leaders Dyea and Bestie

Lex Treinen, KUAC

(Circle, Ak)

Matt Hall won the Yukon Quest Alaska 300 race Monday. The former thousand-mile Quest champ from Two Rivers crossed the finish line in Central with 9 dogs at 4:17 PM. Quest rookie Isaac Teaford, a handler for 5-time Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey, finished about an hour behind Hall to claim second place in the 300. Ron Stiffler Jr. of Fairbanks (STIFF-ler) finished 3rd last night (Mon).
Meanwhile, Brent Sass continues to lead the Quest 550, followed by Wade Marrs, Riley Dych, Nic Petit, Amanda Otto and Cody Strathe, who as of early Tuesday, were all making their way toward Two Rivers, where mushers must rest 4 hours.

Lex Treinen
Quest 300 musher Vickie Justice arrives in Circle.

Mushers in both the Quest 300 and 550 mile races have to mush along Birch Creek to Circle and then turn around and head back to Central, a total of about 175 miles on a notoriously cold stretch of trail. 300 musher Vickie Justice was happy to report that she only saw it dip to minus 30 on the her sled thermometer.

“Better than last time when it was 60 below” according to Justice.

Some mushers have strategies to deal with the cold. Quest rookie Teaford says he does squats to keep his blood flowing when temps get cold.

“Basically doing squats on the runners while you’re mushing down the river, it probably looks a little strange, but it helps.”

Monotony can be an even tougher challenge. The winding oxbows of Birch Creek are known to lull mushers into hallucinations. Teaford says his strategy to stay focused is creating songs about his dogs.

“Any one who hears me out on the trail might hear me singing a rendition of Prophet the red-nosed lead dog or something silly.”

Cold and tedium aside, mushers also deal with exhaustion, and sit on their sleds during a good chunk of the 80-mile stretch between Central to Circle. That changes when teams get close to Circle and have to navigate sharp turns on icy roads that can catch mushers off guard. Quest 300 racer Ashley Dove missed the penultimate right turn to get to the checkpoint, but only lost a few seconds, before regaining the trail. Dove said overall her run to Circle was smooth.

“The trail was actually pretty good out there, which was great.

Lex Treinen
Quest 550 musher Deke Naaktgeboren leaving Circle.

550 musher Deke Naaktgeboren also admitted to making some bad decisions because of his exhaustion. For him it was drinking a cup of coffee.

“I probably shouldn’t be because I’m supposed to be taking a nap”.

Naaktgeboren said he started to hallucinate on the trail into town.

“Start hearing voices and stuff.”

The Circle Firehall serves as the race checkpoint where mushers have a chance to recover a little before heading back out on Birch Creek to return to Central. Checkpoint managers had plenty of food this year, and 550 musher Cody Strathe took full advantage to fuel up.

“I brought a breakfast burrito and some sweet potato chicken casserole.”

Strathe was little less than enthusiastic to head back out on Birch Creek, and blasted a Marcus King playlist through his ear buds to prepare.

“I’ve gotta psyche myself up to see everything I’ve already seen. It’s gonna be good though. I think the dogs will enjoy it, they’ll feel like we’re going home. Maybe they’ll be like ‘what are we doing, this is ridiculous."

Strathe said his dogs got soaked in overflow on the Chena River on day one of the race and now afraid of any open water, which is inevitable on Birch Creek.

“That means I’ve got to run through it to show them it’s okay.”

Lex Treinen
Amanda Otto mushing her team on Birch Creek

Quest 300 musher Ron Stiffler gave his dogs frozen chicken skins, before heading out on the long run back to Central.

“Its got a lot of fat in it, so they love it this time of the race.”

He says it should be enough to keep his dogs running for a while, even if the driver is hallucinating on the endless turns of Birch Creek. ###