As the sun rose pink over the windswept Eagle Summit, the green aurora fading in the light, thoughts go to the mushers who have been standing on the runners in the frigid air watching the same sun rise.
Bar the few early morning workers leaving Fort Knox Mine after a graveyard shift, the Steese Highway is empty as we head north, Sunday, Feb 6th, looking to intercept dog teams entering the second day of the Yukon Quest. Light slowly illuminated hills that turned into mountains the further north we drove.
I am a retired 10-dog sprint musher. Often referred to the as the Formula One of mushing, sprint teams reach speeds of up to 25 mph, and average of 20 mph. Sprinting is not for the feint hearted. Handling sharp corners, commanding a team’s enormous pulling power gives you a false sense of being in control. Moose encounters at high speed are terrifying, stopping is not an easy task. And, we sleep in our own beds after each stage of a race, which is usually under 20 miles per day.
I am traveling with UAF Journalism professor Brian Patrick O’Donoghue. A former reporter and musher, his perspective has little in common with that of a sprint kennel owner. He covered sprint, mid-distance and Alaska’s mushing marathons, but it’s the Red lantern runs in the ’98 Quest and ’91 Iditarod that define his experience; joyful, plodding, at times, terrifying.
The Quest is enormously different to sprint races like the Open North American Championships. In the Quest, a team has a maximum of 14 dogs; in the ONAC teams have a minimum of 12, a maximum of how ever many you feel comfortable with or necessary. Most open class mushers start with 16.
Quest dogs are usually Alaskan huskies selected for their thick fur, mental toughness, and good feet. Thick fur allows insulation against the very cold temperatures, often plummeting to 40 or 50 below. Sprint dogs are mostly German shorthaired pointers mixed with huskies, these long-legged lean dogs have short coats and the hound’s flopping ears, highly unsuited to the bitter cold. Instead, the big ears, short hair, and long tongues act as radiators to prevent overheating.
Quest teams reach a top speed of around 10 mph, though they travel at averages of 6 or 8 mph with rest and snack breaks. And, there are the hills; a 10 percent grade is steep for a sprint team, while a distance team will tackle mountains, real mountains. We are out here to see the latter, and only 113 miles into the 1000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
Arriving at Mile 101 dog drop on the Steese Highway, we parked alongside the dog trucks driven by handlers. This is an unofficial checkpoint, a location for mushers to rest and drop dogs that are injured, or aren’t contributing as they should. Once a dog is dropped from a team, it’s out for the duration of the race. No substitutions are permitted at any point thereafter.
Race veterinarians in their red jackets are moving between teams, and occasionally a dropped dog is being walked by race staff or a handler to a waiting dog truck.
Entering the warm-up cabin, a mixture of bacon and wet clothing wafted over us.
Mushers sat in ’70s style dining chairs around a plastic table draped in a red gingham table cloth, bleary eyed after almost 24 hours on the trail, frost already melted off the men’s beards, gloves and hats strung above a nearby stove.
With dogs fed and bedded down outside in deep straw, the mushers took time to refuel and share quiet stories from the trail.
Two Rivers musher and two-time champion Allen Moore, 58, methodically ate bacon and scrambled eggs.
Moore quietly asked veteran racer Ed Hopkins, 51, how he managed to make it through a pond overflow just past Rosebud summit without getting wet.
“I just did a hop, skip, and jump over it,” said Hopkins, chuckling. “It was cold and icy,”
Moore recalled 2011, when past champion Hans Gatt fell through the ice, “I was right behind him. Normally you can see overflow. That year you couldn’t. It looked like solid ice. Hans went over and ‘goosh!’ he fell through. It was really cold, 60 below.
“I went right around him,” Moore added. “Dallas Seavey went around. It was waist deep on the side. Hans caught himself by his elbows, it was real deep.
“I had trash bags that year, I had just put them on. It [the water] went almost to the top of the trash bags. I made it across and didn’t get wet. Dallas came into the checkpoint wearing just a sleeping bag.”
Fellow mushers, Quest volunteers and reporters close enough to hear, listened attentively. Many knew of this story, but hearing it at a checkpoint, from a champion musher who dodged disaster that frigid cold crossing, it’s far more real.
This year’s mild temperatures were a far cry from the cold that defined 2011.
Canadian musher Rob Cooke, 49, sat opposite Moore, listening to the stories of overflow and cold and looked a little jealous.
Cooke runs thick-coated Siberian huskies. “It’s too warm,” he said of the conditions marking his recent 6-hour run from Two Rivers checkpoint. Cooke was planning to incorporate more rest than the front runners would. He was driving one of 4 Siberian teams in this year’s race, and said there was more support than rivalry between them.
“There are so few Siberian teams doing thousand mile races now,’ he said, “we all want to see more Siberian teams entering these races, and to get rid of this thought that Siberians are slow.”
“They can be competitive,” Cooke said.
The Canadian went back to the musher’s rest cabin. Moore headed toward his snoozing dogs, with plans to soon leave for the summit climb. Volunteers continued adding bacon and eggs to the frying pans, ready to dish out to hungry mushers yet to come.
It was now around 8 a.m. The dawn was beginning and had finally provided enough light to see without a headlamp. We headed north on the highway, to catch teams cresting the notorious Eagle Summit, where past Quests have been won or lost, weather frequently playing a critical role.
We pulled off the highway at the base of a very steep hill we reckoned should lead to the summit. Neither of us had walked out there before. The sun started to color the snow pink. We started up the steep windblown slope following snowmachine tracks that broke the hard snow crust. . I started walking behind O’Donoghue, his dutiful student.
It was evident I was a lot fitter, and my snowmachine boots had better tread than his slippery bunny boots. Between gasps, he suggested I climb ahead. I offered to carry the panting 60-year-old professor’s camera bag. After a few rebuttals I went ahead and waited at the top. I expected to see the trail right there. All I saw was more unmarked whiteness in the low light. O’Donoghue arrived and looked relived to be done with the climb.
We continued along the ridge, passing sastrugi, icy patterns and wedges created from high winds eroding and sculpting the snow. Jagged shale poked through the snow, and in some cases a long, thin sail of snow remained attached to the rock indicating the prevailing wind direction.
Eagle summit is notorious for high winds, blowing snow, and unnervingly whiteout conditions. This day, it was hard to imagine this place more beautiful. Blue sky and dead calm made the notorious mountain seem like a great place to pitch a tent.
We kept walking for about a mile until we saw the trail down below, marked by sturdy tripods, permanent markers placed on the top of the summit to give the mushers and their dogs a clear trail to follow. The 5-foot tall, angular, tripods stand out in the smooth, glowing white snow.
The trail below crossed through a broad slot in the mountain ridge’s. As we began our descent, a team trotted briskly over the 800-foot wide summit, which was still in the far mountain’s shadow. The Sun had not yet crested the far peaks illuminating the trail. The team didn’t stop and soon began its descent down into the Eagle River valley.
As notorious as the summit is for its climb, it is also known for its steep, unrelenting descent. Many teams have rolled down the hill contents of their sled bag, and anything loose, littering the hillside.
By the timing, we determine it must be Allen Moore passing below. He descends smoothly into the Yukon Flats and onto the Central checkpoint.
We continued down to the tripods and O’Donoghue said quietly that, in years past, some mushers timed their crossing of Eagle Summit for dawn, banking to take advantage of similar calm winds.
The Quest alternates direction each year. In ’98, O’Donoghue and the other racers crossed Eagle Summit going the other direction. Nothing went as planned, he recollects. Climbing toward the summit, his team encountered a photographer near the top, turned around, and nearly raced back down. On the descent, his sled barrel-rolled into the valley. Amazingly, no dogs were hurt.
As a sprint musher, the descent here looks terrifying. Our trails are groomed smooth like a snooker table, and riding a brake to slow the team down is sacrilege. My heart started racing thinking how I would take that hill with a fast dog team. The summit is calm, but the immensity of scale is astonishing.
As we waited for other teams, light advances steadily across the summit and eventually bathes us in spectacular sunshine. The brilliant blue/white light bounced off the textured snow like a thousand tiny mirrors.
Another team crested the summit and continued past the tripods spread about 100 feet apart. Rather than speculate who this might be, O’Donoghue showed his reporting experience and yelled “Who are you?”
The musher, who had offered us happy chatter about the beautiful day as he passed, driving dogs looking relaxed with their tails elegantly out behind and ears forward, now turned around from the runners, holding on with one hand. “I’m Matt Hall,” he yelled, as he continued across the summit.
The 2014 rookie of the year, Hall, 24, is originally from Eagle, Alaska, near the Canadian border. He now calls Two Rivers home. Just off winning the Copper Basin 300, the team appears in great shape. The musher assists the dogs with a ski pole, fluidly pushing forward in snow like a Venetian gondolier plowing a canal. The dogs’ fluorescent-yellow bootied feet quickly and efficiently cross the pass, their padding steps barely discernible against the breeze and the swish of the plastic runners sliding across on coarse snow.
As the sun warmed the summit, the breeze started to pick up. Before long, holding a camera steady left fingers numb, a small taste of how weather can quickly change.
We started our climb from the saddle back toward the ridge. Glancing back, we were lucky and see another team move efficiently over the summit, stopping briefly to adjust the sled’s brake before descending down the hillside, continuing on the 1000-mile trail.
After the steep descent, the trail hugs the side of the valley as it drops gently into the flats before reaching the iconic Yukon River at Circle. From there the mushers travel along the Yukon River until reaching Whitehorse.
A little later back at 101, outside in the dog yard I found Quest 300 rookie musher Stephanie Ehlenfeldt, 37, who wasn’t as lucky as Hopkins to hop, skip or jump over the overflow. Standing with boots still cased in ice, and her sled covered in ice, she was in very high spirits, even laughing as she told of her getting wet, “I took the right side of the pond, instead of the left side. The sled went in, I went in almost entirely. You could see boot prints all along the edges, so I was definitely not the first the go in.”
Ehlenfeldt credited the dogs for staying dry even though some of them have never really seen overflow. “I had some dogs in lead who at first were not comfortable with it. At first they baulked, but then they just jumped and ran.”
On this day, warm sunshine and mild temperatures offer opportunity to explore country very few people will ever see.
Mushers will still be arriving and leaving Mile 101 checkpoint all day, before the last of them too cross Eagle Summit on their way to Whitehorse.
As we head back to the truck it was clear that the steepness of the trail was far beyond anything a sprint musher would want to encounter, but a sad feeling lingered, was it regret for leaving the beautiful mountain and the cheerful mushers?
No, it was envy!
To be one of those mushers riding on the runners on such a gorgeous day!