DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory - Two-time defending champion Hans Gatt took the lead Thursday in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, arriving first at the Dawson City checkpoint.
Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain, who had been leading the race since its start on Saturday, was 41 minutes behind Gatt arriving at Dawson City, Yukon Territory. They were the only mushers into the Dawson checkpoint by 11 p.m. Thursday night and they were well ahead of the next group of teams making the 1,026-mile run from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Gatt, of Atlin, British Columbia, arrived in Dawson City at 1:58 p.m. Yukon time (12:58 p.m. Alaska time) and Steer arrived at 2:39 p.m. (Yukon). Gatt was driving 11 dogs, while Steer had 10 in his string. The first team to cross the Alaska-Yukon Territory border won the Kiwanis Award, while the first team into Dawson won four ounces of gold.
Teams are required to take a mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson City, and times are adjusted in the checkpoint to make up for the race's staggered start. Gatt won't be allowed to leave the checkpoint until 3:10 a.m. (Yukon) on Saturday, while Steer can leave at 3:47 a.m.
Gatt was 23 minutes behind Steer leaving the Fortymile dog drop, but gained and overtook him down the trail.
When Steer arrived at the Eagle, Alaska, checkpoint on Tuesday, the rookie Quest musher - though Steer is a veteran of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and he won the 2003 Copper Basin 300 - may have had some sense that things were going to take a turn for the worse.
"I would not place a lot of money on the Steer team right now," he said. Steer at one point had more than a three-hour lead on the competition. He predicted that Gatt would win the race.
The next group of mushers was running about eight hours behind the leaders.
David Dalton of Healy was in third place, arriving at the Fortymile dog drop at 11:43 a.m. (Yukon) and leaving at 7:07 p.m. with a full string of 14 dogs. He was followed into the dog drop station about 2 1/2 hours later by Dan Kaduce of Chatanika and Peter Ledwidge of Dawson City, who had yet to leave the first dog drop station on the Yukon Territory side of the border.
Also arriving at Fortymile on Thursday were two-time winner John Schandelmeier of Paxson; former champion Frank Turner of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse; and Thomas Tetz of Tagish, Yukon Territory. None of them had left the dog drop station Thursday night.
Tetz is driving a dog team owned by Juneau musher Deborah Bicknell, but only had eight dogs left in his string on Thursday. He has dropped five dogs during the race, and started with 13 dogs instead of the maximum 14 allowed. Teams may drop slow or injured dogs at checkpoints and special dog drop stations along the trail, but all teams must finish the race with at least six dogs.
From Eagle to Dawson, mushers traveled 150 miles along the trail, passing through the Fortymile River valley. They could rest at a cabin at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon rivers.
Then it was 50 miles to Dawson City, where teams are required to take a 36-hour rest.
After their layovers, the teams climb to the top of King Solomon's Dome, at 3,800 feet the highest point on the Yukon Quest Trail and the last of four major climbs on the eastern route of the trail used in even years. Dawson is at 1,214 feet in elevation.
The next checkpoint is Pelly Crossing, 203 miles from Dawson. But there is a dog drop station in Scroggie Creek, near Stewart River about 101 miles from Dawson.
As of Thursday night, all 23 mushers still in the race had reached Eagle or were further along the trail. Eight of the 31 mushers who started the race last Saturday in Fairbanks have scratched so far.
Temperatures on Thursday did warm up a bit from earlier this week,, when temperatures hit minus-50 (Fahrenheit) between Central and Eagle. On Thursday, Eagle was up to 27 with a low of minus-10, while Dawson City was at 28 degrees with a low of minus-4.
For more updates, visit the Yukon Quest's Web site at www.yukonquest.com.