CIRCLE CITY - Defending champion Hans Gatt of Atlin, British, Columbia, was holding onto a comfortable lead in the 20th Annual Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Gatt continued his lonely journey up the trail today, about five hours ahead of his nearest competitor. He left the Circle City checkpoint at 12:08 a.m. The next musher out of Circle was Hugh Neff of Coldfoot, who left at 5:05 a.m.
Both Gatt and Neff were headed for the Central checkpoint, 75 miles down the trail. Central is just 177 miles from the finish line in Fairbanks.
"It would be nice to travel with somebody, but I've got no choice. I'm on my own," Gatt told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "That's OK. That doesn't bother me."
Since Gatt has a comfortable lead, he's been able to rest his dogs longer than he would have if it were a tight race.
"If I don't make a big mistake, I don't think anybody can catch me," he said. "I don't expect anybody to make big moves, you know it's 50, 40 below out there. If somebody's going to cut rest now, he's going to be in trouble in a hurry. You can't push the dogs right now. There's no way; they need a lot of rest."
William Kleedehn and Thomas Tetz, both of Carcoss, Yukon Territory, left Circle City at 5:40 a.m. and 6:40 a.m. respectively. Among the frontrunners, John Schandelmeier of Paxson and Martin Massicotte of Quebec remained in Circle, resting their dogs.
Nineteen mushers remain in the 1,100-mile race between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and Fairbanks, Alaska.
On Monday, Gatt and his 10 dogs were the first to arrive in the Circle City checkpoint, arriving at 2:55 p.m. on Monday.
Kleedehn was in second place, followed by Tetz. Schandelmeier of Paxson was in fourth place, followed by Massicotte and Neff. They reached Circle City sometime Monday night.
Most of the other teams remaining in the race were making the 98-mile run from Eagle to Slaven's Cabin.
Barring any problems, Gatt appeared headed for an easy victory in the 1,100-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 won the race twice.
The mushers were facing bitterly cold temperatures as a high pressure system from Siberia moved over Alaska. Temperatures were dropping to 45 below. That's in sharp contract to the mild temperatures they experienced early in the race when readings climbed to near 30 degrees.
"The cold's like your alarm clock. It kind of kicks you out of the sled," former champion Frank Turner said. "It's a great motivator."
Turner, the only musher to have entered every Quest since the first race in 1984, said this is not the coldest it has gotten on the Quest. One year in the late 1990s, Turner said it was 57 degrees below zero. Others have reported temperatures as low as 70 below in the Fortymile country.
"For me, the cold is just part of everything about the Quest," Turner said. "You kind of accept it and take one step at a time and go down the road."
Paul Geoffrion was in last place, leaving Dawson City at 1:34 a.m. Monday.
To compensate for the cold weather, Gatt said he would 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 Tetz along with French-Canadian Massicotte and Coldfoot musher 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.