CARMACKS, Yukon Territory -- Doug Grilliot was pleased.
His dogs were moving along at an efficient clip, resting and eating well and hanging with the leaders of the 2001 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Things were going well, especially for a rookie.
Grilliot was seven miles from the Carmacks checkpoint Monday night, about an hour and a half behind the leader, William Kleedehn, when things took a turn for the worse.
Zema, a 5-year-old team dog, was riding in the sled basket to give her a break when Grilliot stopped to check booties on a couple of dogs in his team.
Midway up his gangline, Grilliot turned around just in time to see Zema slip her collar, which was attached to a tether, and trot down the trail.
"It's been a long 80 miles (from Braeburn Lodge), and you can quote me on that," Grilliot said around 3 p.m. Tuesday after finally checking in at Carmacks.
While Grilliot was dealing with his missing dog, the frontrunners in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race left the Pelly Crossing checkpoint Tuesday night, with William Kleedehn of Carcross still holding on to a substantial lead.
Kleedehn left Pelly crossing at about 6:30 p.m. Alaska Time. David Sawatzky of Healy was in second place, leaving Pelly Crossing about four hours after Kleedehn. Tim Osmar of Ninilchik followed a half hour behind Sawatzky. Rounding out the top five, John Schandelmeier of Paxson Lake left shortly after 11 p.m. and Frank Turner of Whitehorse left shortly before midnight.
The mushers have a long run -- about 200 miles -- to the next checkpoint at Dawson City. Dawson is the halfway point in the 1,000-mile race to Fairbanks and it's there that the mushers take a mandatory 36 hour layover. They weren't expected to arrive there until Thursday morning at the earliest.
As of Wednesday, 29 teams remained in the race. Jack Berry of Homer was the first to scratch. Berry dropped out in Carmacks after his five lead dogs fell victim to shoulder injuries. His team trained on well-packed trails all year and were now faced with softer conditions and fresh snow, he said.
Meanwhile, deep blue rings hung like half moons under the Willow musher's eyes as he relayed the saga that kept handlers, officials and casual onlookers speculating all day about whether Grilliot's dog would be found.
The open-faced, friendly Grilliot wasn't too worried when Zema took off. She's a steady dog, he reasoned. She'll be back in 10 minutes, maybe an hour, he thought.
"She just went down the trail and didn't even look back," Grilliot said.
After he gave his team a snack, Grilliot turned on his headlamp to go for a walk down the trail, hoping to catch the reflection of Zema's eyes through the lightly falling snow. She was nowhere to be seen.
At about 9:30 Tuesday morning, Grilliot decided to take his 12 remaining dogs the rest of the way to Carmacks to find a snowmachine and go out searching for Zema. Failure to find the dog could mean disqualification from the race, not to mention the loss of a dear friend.
After driving by the spot where he'd built a fire and spent the night, musher Keli Mahoney got to Carmacks and reported seeing a dog sleeping under a spruce tree along the trail.
Zema had returned to the spot where Grilliot spent the night.
"I found her snoozing right next to where we were camped," he said.