At this point in the race, a musher begins to settle into the feeling of the trail. The hype & excitement of the start begin to fade, replaced instead with the relentless rhythmic sound of the dogs’ feet upon the ground, that muted jingle of the necklines against the collars, the swishing of the runners over the hard-packed snow. All of the teams have had at least one camp & one opportunity to pause, recollect, reassess & hopefully get at least a modicum of rest. My first camp last year was almost more frenetic & stressful than any run I had; though we had traveled sixty miles, the dogs were so amped up to be in a race that they scarcely rested, opting instead to take turns banging into their harnesses while barking at every passing team. But then, like everything on trail, if there’s something you don’t like, it’s probably your fault.
As I write this, Hugh & Brent are both in Carmacks, with Allen & Ed about to arrive. A glance down the trail clarifies some of the varying strategies we’re going to see with this stretch. A swath of folks opted for a camp near Mandanna Lake, including Katherine, Paige, Ryne, Brian & Gaetan. This particular length of trail is stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with granite bluffs jutting out over massive lakes strung catenary across the broad country. A tired musher is jolted into action during the many portages between the chain of lakes, which wind through sudden patches of forested land, angling through trees & spitting teams out onto yet another smooth expanse of white. The portages were the best tonic to sleepiness for us last year, heading the opposite direction.
At any rate, those folks who did choose to camp will likely blow through Carmacks & head on to McCabe. It’s also possible, depending on individual strategies, that Pelly will be the next actual checkpoint rest for some of these teams. The trail opens up in curious ways after that; 210 miles between Pelly & Dawson without an actual checkpoint. A good number of variables enter into a musher’s consideration when settling on a strategy. Cody Strathe, no stranger to this trail, has done a fine job of analyzing some of those particulars at http://squidacres.com/follow-us-2/blog/. The good folks at Mushing Tech also do an amazing job of going deep into the numbers & making those of us with screaming babies in the background marvel at their acumen.
Though Hugh’s Spartan run to Braeburn casts a different light on the matter, it’s usually not too terribly telling to think we have a real race on our hands until at least the second third of the trail. A glance at the speeds of most of the teams evidences an effort to stay on the brakes & build into the race rather than letting the dogs go at more of a lope. Traditionally, the winning average speed taken over the whole race is roughly 8.6 mph. By standing firmly on the brake for the first few runs, some mushers hope to establish that pace right from the start. That said, I suspect we’ll see a big move or two from a handful of teams heading out of Pelly. The Dawson City lights have a gravity all their own, & the promise of a 36-hour rest can compel strategies that privilege a big push over more restraint for front-runners. For now, it’s safe to say we don’t have a great many surprises in terms of who is presently leading the race. It’s also safe to say, though, that a handful of well-rested teams are poised to make strong runs on the leaders’ heels. As my wife is fond of saying, it’s wise to consider what’s best in the long run, & it is a long run.
Andy Pace is an owner and operator of Hey Moose! Kennel with his wife Kristin Knight Pace.