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Daunting climbs may settle Yukon Quest sled-dog race (+video)

Alaska Dispatch
Jake Berkowitz is running third in the Yukon Quest with 12 dogs out of Circle City and looking to close the gap. Loren Holmes photo

As the sun set Saturday evening and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race entered its home stretch, what had been a two-musher battle for first place in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks was beginning to change.

Still leading was defending champion Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, who left the Circle checkpoint, 234 miles from the finish line, at 11:26 a.m. with a two-hour advantage over last year’s runner-up, Allen Moore of Two Rivers.  Neff gained the advantage by resting two fewer hours than Moore. But Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake had moved within four hours of Neff and popular Fairbanks musher Brent Sass was little more than an hour behind Berkowitz, closing a gap that was far wider a few days ago. Sass is looking to improve on his career-best Quest finish of fourth in 2011.

Nothing was settled, especially with such perilous trail ahead. 

Some 74 miles past Circle City comes the Mile 101 dog drop site. Then comes the real equalizer.  Mushers climb from an elevation of 935 feet at Mile 101 to 3,685 feet atop Eagle Summit, before descending a bit and then ascending 3,640-foot Rosebud Summit.  

It’s a double-whammy that can stop the most skilled mushers and most powerful canines in their tracks. Even though this year’s Quest has seen unseasonably warm weather, the National Weather Service forecast winds of up to 30 mph with blowing snow on the summits for Saturday night and Sunday morning.

“I’m looking to kinda start racing now," Sass told KUAC reporter Emily Schwing on Saturday.  "So yeah, I got a few tricks up my sleeve.”  

Good fortune wouldn’t hurt, either. Neff, for one, will be battling personal demons as he climbs the steep and windy Eagle Summit. Two years ago, that climb changed the race leader board entirely. Neff, leading by almost half a day, stalled on the summit. Unable to make it up the notoriously steep pitch, Neff withdrew from the race after his dog, Geronimo, died in the attempt.

This year, Neff pulled out of Circle City with 10 dogs after dropping one there. Moore had 11, and Berkowitz retained the most dog power, with 12 in harness.

The Steese Highway, the only road into the Alaska towns of Circle and Central, which serve as Quest checkpoints, reopened Saturday after being closed due to blowing and drifting snow on Friday.