DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory -- The message posted on the board at the checkpoint here in this Yukon River town said Deborah Bicknell left the mouth of the Fortymile River at 12:55 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
The next line read: ``She expects it to be a long run into town.''
Was it ever. Bicknell brought up the rear of the Sorel Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race at 10:08 p.m. Alaska time, covering the 50 miles to Dawson leisurely, much the same way she has traveled first half of this 1,000-mile race.
``(She's doing) very well,'' Bruce Milne reported after seeing Bicknell roughly 12 hours before arriving at 12:18 p.m. Sunday for his 36-hour mandatory layover. ``She's on vacation. She's very talkative.''
Judging from the reports that trickle down the trail, Bicknell is having a pretty good time. She's just not moving very fast and she's had a little bit of trouble.
Phil Russell, Bicknell and Milne left the Trout Creek cabin two days ago, in that order, but Bicknell got lost on the 40-mile leg and Milne reached Eagle before she did.
``When I got to Eagle, she was nowhere to be seen,'' Milne said. ``I never saw her out on the river.''
When Bicknell finally arrived, she camped for some time to recover from the ordeal of being lost. She quickly regained her spirits, but she lost plenty of time.
Milne and Russell were well ahead of her when they arrived in Dawson. Milne said he could identify with Bicknell's plight of being far behind the leaders, who were 100 miles up the trail by Sunday afternoon.
``It's a strange feeling shutting down each checkpoint as you go through and shutting down each cabin as you go through,'' he said.
``In the back of the pack, you don't see people most of the day. I'm running basically the same times as a friend of mine, Phil Russell, but on a different schedule. We only see each other two times a day.''
Milne and Russell essentially teamed up on the run from Central to Circle. They check on each other and make sure everything's OK. At the time, Milne needed help because of leader troubles, but his dogs seem to be getting into a rhythm now. Well, at least one of them, named Lysle.
``One of the leaders that I hadn't relied on too much led eight hours of a nine-hour run today,'' Milne said.
``When the younger dogs get tired, they don't lead anymore.''
Milne was in good spirits when he arrived in town, and his mood only got better. He had intended to care for his dogs alone during the layover because he couldn't find a handler. While he made his way up the trail, though, his friends were working in Dawson to put together a pit crew for him.
There were four messages posted around town looking for volunteers and some of his friends from Two Rivers manned his camp for him while he got some good sleep Sunday afternoon.
``There's so much help available,'' Milne said. ``Everyone in distance mushing in Fairbanks, Two Rivers and North Pole help each other out. (The help) was more than I could imagine.''
When one of the reporters in the room asked him if he was having fun, Milne replied with a smile: ``Oh, I have no idea. ... Fun is one of those weird words. It's not fun like going to a carnival or a beer bash. This is so different. It's like a chain of experiences out there.''
Abbie West, another back-of-the-packer who had trouble getting down the trail, looked refreshed after completing 24 of her 36 hours here. She'd had sleep, her dogs were looking good and her husband, John Mottram, and father, Pete West, made sure that she had some tender loving care when she hit town.
``I have the best billet house,'' she said. ``They've got a jacuzzi, a hot tub, a pool table. It's really nice.''
A long soak revitalized the Copper Center musher, but she admitted to thinking long and hard about scratching when her dogs got sick on the trip over from Circle.
``That was 300 miles with sick dogs,'' West said. ``It's just so hard when they give that much to you and you keep running them.''
Now that her dogs have rebounded, West is ready for the final 450 miles to Whitehorse.
``I feel a lot better,'' she said. ``I'm still kind of leery about whether I'll finish or not. The run (Saturday) night made me feel so good. They would pick up speed for no reason. I didn't call them up, they just picked up speed because they felt like it.''
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