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With mushers on a mission, Yukon Quest revs up in Canada

Zack Steer
Hugh Neff's license plate at the Anchorage start of the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Neff won the 2012 Yukon Quest. Loren Holmes photo

When 26 mushers leave the Yukon Quest start line in downtown Whitehorse on Saturday, race fans may get a whiff of déjà vu. Once again, Hugh Neff and Allen Moore, just a few steps apart a year ago in the closest finish in race history, will battle in the 30th running of the 1,000-mile race between Alaska and Canada.

So will the once-invincible, now-struggling Lance Mackey, behind a team that has already tasted victory once this season. And young Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake is trying to prove that his fourth-place finish a year ago is more an omen than a fluke.

Expect the normally jovial and laid-back Moore to give you a very nasty look following any mention of  “26 seconds” – the difference between his team and that of 2012 champion Neff over the course of 10 days and 1,000 miles of racing across some of the toughest terrain on Earth.

That is a blink of the eye in the slow-paced world of endurance sled-dog sports. It is a safe bet that Moore has thought of every possible way he could have made up that difference, and more, over the last 12 months.  

A win three weeks ago in the Copper Basin 300 shows that Moore is up for the challenge.  Neff’s seventh place finish in the same Copper Basin race suggests that he needs to bring a better team to the start line if he plans to repeat, and the defending champ wasn’t sounding confident at a Meet the Mushers event in Whitehorse Wednesday night.

'Going to be tough' 

“I know for a fact that I don’t have the best team,” Neff told the Fairbanks News-Miner. “It’s going to be tough if these guys have a good run to be competitive.”

Neff’s victory last year was a breakthrough for the Tok musher.  A self-admitted “Huge Mess” in his early years of racing, Neff has steadily risen to the top of the field and is poised to prove he belongs at the top of the Quest podium.  

Neff would be a two-time champion were it not for a two-hour time penalty on the final day of the 2009 race, which cost him the lead and, ultimately, the race by four minutes.

In an unusual move, Neff will end his streak of nine consecutive Iditarods, beginning in 2004, to focus exclusively on the Quest this year.  Financially, it’s odd because the  $35,600 Neff earned for his fifth-place Iditarod finish in 2011 exceeds the $28,395 he won as Quest champion last year.

Neff’s strength is his stubbornness to continue on, even when weather or trail conditions deteriorate and other mushers hole up.  The harder the trail, the better Neff seems to do.  He is a risk taker, not afraid to gamble for victory.  I would not be surprised to see him repeat in 2013 -- or to finish 15th place if his gamble goes bust.

Lance Mackey recharged?

A huge addition to this year’s Quest field, and a big question mark as well, is four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, the winner from 2005-08.  

After proving himself practically unbeatable during a half decade of racing, Mackey’s recent results have turned spotty, with a series of wins and top finishes combined with some lackluster performances.  Mackey makes no excuses and will be the first to admit that his standards are high and that he’s been falling short.  

A recent win in the new Top of the World 350 race two months ago indicates that Mackey has the dogs to excel.  Whether or not a true comeback – his Fairbanks kennel is called the Comeback Kennel -- is in the offing remains to be seen.  

Mackey has perhaps the most vocal and ardent followers a musher could hope for, and he’s a perennial favorite among northerners for his straight talk and no-BS philosophy.

“The team that dominated for years got old,” Mackey told the  News-Miner, while acknowledging he didn’t manage his kennel well. “I’m just now getting back to the place where they’re ready again.”

Those nasty summits

The Quest alternates directions between its start and finish destinations of Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. This year, mushers will travel east to west, with a finish in Alaska’s Golden Heart City.  

Most mushers agree that this course, in this direction, is the most difficult 1000-mile trail in long-distance sled dog sports. The difficulty lies not in the distance (great), or the trail conditions (usually nasty weather, bitter cold, and miles of jumble ice) but rather in the location of the two major summits the teams must climb: Eagle and Rosebud. These two formidable summits, back to back so late in the race, has caused many late-race disasters for mushers behind tired dog teams:

  • In 2006, brutal weather atop Eagle summit forced emergency evacuations and the eventual scratches of eight mushers stranded near Eagle Summit.
  • In 2009, Canadian musher William Kleedehn lost a huge lead negotiating Eagle Summit and ended up sixth.
  • Veterans Hugh Neff, Dan Kaduce and Allen Moore were all rebuked by Eagle Summit in 2011.  

Nobody looks forward to this brutal stretch of trail after eight or nine days of competitive racing; every year, this section breaks hearts and shatters dreams. It is enough of a physical and mental challenge to worry the most experienced mushers, whether they admit it or not.

Quest success, Iditarod success? 

Quest success can parlay into Iditarod success and bigger paydays. But not always.  

More than one musher has used an outstanding Quest performance to catapult into the upper echelons of the Iditarod, which boasts the most-competitive field in long-distance racing. The list of mushers who won the Yukon Quest and then seized an Iditarod victory include Joe Runyan, Jeff King, Lance Mackey and Dallas Seavey. Sebastian Schnuelle won the Quest in 2009 and went on to a second place finish that year in Iditarod. The bulk of the dogs that pulled Allen Moore to his second-place finish last year also brought Aliy Zirkle to second place in the Iditarod two weeks later.  

More than an experience builder, the Quest has proven to be a confidence boost for mushers, allowing them to tell themselves, “I belong at the front of the pack.”

But Quest success doesn’t always guarantee Iditarod fame. Canadian Hans Gatt has only managed two top-five Iditarod finishes in a dozen attempts, despite winning four Yukon Quests, including three in a row from 2002-04. Neff has had remarkable success in the Quest, but only has that single top-five Iditarod finish – and now seems to be reversing an increasingly popular strategy.  After Mackey became the first musher to win the Quest and the Iditarod back to back in the same year, a feat long considered impossible, long-distance doubles gained popularity. Now Neff, an avid doubler, is cutting back and sitting out this year's Iditarod.

The trend of Quest success leading to Iditarod fame can bomb when mushers go the opposite direction and try to apply Iditarod success to the race’s northern cousin. The most famous failure came in 2009 when four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser tried to use his speedy Big Lake huskies on a challenging Quest trail, only to finish fourth. You could almost hear Buser muttering to Edgar Allen Poe's raven, “Never more, never more,” on his drive back to Anchorage to toe the line in his signature March event.

Beware Dan Kaduce

This year’s Quest is sure to have some adventure. Watch for perennial contender Brent Sass to push to the front if he does not get caught up rescuing his fellow competitors, as he’s done in years past.

Abbie West has been a consistent finisher and just might surprise a few of the boys on the trail if she can run a thoughtful, paced race.  

Jake Berkowitz is chomping at the bit to show fans that last year’s mushing results were no fluke, and that he is among the young racers to be taken seriously.  

My dark horse pick would have to be Dan Kaduce, whose lackluster results in the past have been tempered by his patience and methodical mushing personality. If Dan decides to cut some rest and lets his dogs run, other teams had better watch out.

Veteran musher Zack Steer finished second in the 2004 Yukon Quest and fourth in 2010. He and his wife Anjanette Steer, a fellow musher, run the Sheep Mountain Lodge.