Commentary by Tim Looney, photos by Mark Gillett/Junglemoon Images
After 9 days and nearly one thousand miles, the Yukon Quest is decided by mere seconds!
In the closest finish in race history, Hugh Neff crossed the finish line 26 seconds ahead of Allen Moore, winning the 2012 Yukon Quest.
It all began in Fairbanks, Alaska on Saturday, February 4th, as 23 teams started the nearly one thousand-mile trek from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon. The temperatures were below freezing and the sun was shining, making for a firm, fast trail. Allen Moore was the first musher out of the start, and led most of the second half of the race from Dawson to Whitehorse.
The first major test, at Eagle Summit, proved not to be as bad as in previous years. Dave Dalton did hit a tree before reaching the Mile 101 checkpoint and bruised his ribs. He then slid down Eagle Summit on his belly, losing gear along the way, but was able to continue on.
After Mike Ellis cleared Eagle Summit, his sled slipped out from under him on a side-hill glacier and he fell, dislocating his shoulder. Mike reset it himself, then drove his team with one arm the twenty miles or so into Central, where he made the hard, but necessary, decision to scratch.
Rookie Misha Pedersen spent a long time on Eagle Summit searching for a lost dog, and ultimately made her way to Central, assuming she would have to scratch. However, a little while later, Yukon Quest 300 musher Ed Abrahamson arrived at the checkpoint with the little female, Riot, in his possession. He was running a team of eleven males and they chased Riot on and off the trail for several miles, until Ed was able to stop and control her. No penalty was given to Pedersen, as the assistance was from another musher, so she was allowed to continue the race.
Other mushers weren’t so lucky, as rookie Jason Weitzel was forced to scratch at Circle City due to on-going back pain. Rookie Maren Bradley felt her dogs weren’t eating enough, so soon after leaving Circle City she returned to the checkpoint and scratched. Later that same day Russian rookie Nikolay Ettyne left Circle with only 7 dogs in team, and over 750 miles to go. He also eventually returned to the checkpoint and scratched. Happily, no other teams scratched this year.
Out on the Yukon River, the lead pack established itself as Hugh Neff, Brent Sass, Allen Moore, Abbie West, Sonny Lindner, Jake Berkowitz and Lance Mackey. After the 4-hour mandatory stop in Eagle, Mackey, Neff and Moore left within 10 minutes of each other, with Moore arriving first into Dawson, winning 4 ounces of gold nuggets as the first team to the halfway point.
In Dawson City the teams are required to take a mandatory 36-hour rest, and handlers are allowed to help care for the dogs. Mushers may choose to stay in town, although several sleep in tents near their dogs. Lance Mackey was quoted as saying he didn’t want his team to think the race was over, so he slept with them.
While the rest of the field was on their way in to Dawson, the lone exception was Michael Telpin. The Russian musher was running Chukchi Dogs – the native dog of the Chukotka region of Russia. These dogs are larger and slower than the traditional Alaskan Huskies most racers run. Telpin was taking his time and running mostly during the day, as that is his normal routine when using his dogs for hunting.
Friday shortly after noon, the race restarted, as the leaders headed back out on the trail in the order that they had arrived. At this point, the races standings became less clear, with tracker signals becoming intermittent or nonexistent altogether. Similar to the old days of following a race, the official checkpoint updates were relied upon for information. The weather had risen above freezing, which is hard on the dogs. Teams needed to take plenty of breaks and several tried to run mainly at night, when the temperatures are cooler.
After the final mandatory stop, Allen Moore was able depart Braeburn 42 minutes ahead of Hugh Neff, due to Neff serving a 30-minute penalty for losing his axe. With 100 miles to go, and barring unforeseen problems, a first-time champion would be crowned, as neither Moore nor Neff had won this race before.
In Whitehorse, Hugh Neff crossed the finish line 26 seconds before Allen Moore, in the closest finish in the race’s history. In order to win his first-ever sled dog race of any length, Neff raced hard to overtake veteran Moore, who had led the entire 2nd half, and passed him to take the lead with less than 5 miles left in the race.
Lance Mackey finished 3rd over five hours later, and Jake Berkowitz followed in 4th to take Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Perennial Yukon Quest favorite Brent Sass rounded out the Top Five.
24-year-old Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom took 6th place, 14 minutes ahead of 61-year-old Sonny Lindner, winner of the first-ever Yukon Quest in 1984. The two seemingly raced each other the entire trail. Abbie West and Kristy Berington were the top female racers, finishing 8th and 9th. Dave Dalton, bruised ribs and all, finished in 10th place, with 12 dogs.
Veteran Kyla Durham, running a puppy team from Brent Sass, came in 11th. Trent Herbst crossed the finish line in 12th place in the early morning hours on Thursday. Several hours later, Gus Guenther finished, followed by Paige Drobny 20 minutes behind. Japanese native Yuka Honda crossed the finish line smiling about her 15th place finish, the final position that earns purse money.
Shortly after midnight on Friday, Brian Wilmshurst became the 16th musher to finish. Misha Pedersen followed an hour later.
Sunday evening, Rookie Marcelle Fressineau finished, leaving only the Russian Michael Telpin, who had earlier caused a stir when his location was unknown for over 36 hours. The 2012 Yukon Quest officially ended Sunday night at 8:05 local time when Telpin crossed the finish line in Whitehorse. The musher finished with all 9 of his native Chukchi dogs, winning the Challenge of the North Award as the musher “who most exemplifies the Spirit of the Yukon Quest.”
The race ended 15 days, 8 hours, 5 minutes, 22 seconds after it started.
(Tim Looney is a long-time media professional with a small recreational kennel in Iowa. Contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his posts at http://mushingloon.blogspot.com/ orhttp://facebook.com/mushing.loon
Northern Light Media thanks Mark Gillett, Junglemoon Images, for his generous sharing of photos from the 2012 Yukon Quest finish. You can find more of Mark’s race coverage, including photos, videos, and commentary, at his blog