SLAVEN'S CABIN - Defending champion Hans Gatt was building his lead in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race early today.
Gatt arrived at the Slaven's Cabin dog drop at 10:20 p.m. Sunday, more than five hours ahead of his closest competitor.
William Kleedehn arrived at Slaven's Cabin at 3:30 a.m. today, and Martin Massicotte arrived at 9:03 a.m. Most of the other teams remaining in the race were making the 98-mile run from Eagle to Slaven's Cabin. Gatt left at 7:50 a.m.
Barring any problems, Gatt appeared headed for an easy victory in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. From Slaven's Cabin it's about 312 miles to the finish line.
If he does win, Gatt would become the first musher to score back-to-back victories in the Quest. He would also become only the third musher to win the race twice in its 20-year history. Only Charlie Boulding and John Schandelmeier have accomplished the feat.
The mushers were facing bitterly cold temperatures as a high pressure system from Siberia moved over Alaska. Temperatures were dropping to 40 below. That's in sharp contract to the mild temperatures they experienced early in the race when readings climbed to near 30 degrees.
Nineteen teams remain in the thousand-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Paul Geoffrion was in last place, leaving Dawson City at 1:34 a.m. today.
To compensate for the cold weather, Gatt said he'll have to stop more often to feed his 10 dogs and he has been adding more fat to their diets. However, he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he should have packed warmer clothes, especially a better pair of boots.
The trail has become a lonely place for Gatt. He hasn't seen his friends, fellow Canadians Kleedehn and Thomas Tetz along with French-Canadian Martin Massicotte and Coldfoot musher Hugh Neff, since the Taylor Highway Bridge about 50 miles outside of Eagle.
Instead, his team, led by Havana and Milos, have had to break through snow drifting over the trail.
"I can't wait five hours for someone to break trail," Gatt said.