After we had packed up the camp in Dawson we dawdled a bit before getting on the road. It felt like it would be a very long time and a very long road to travel before we would see Rob and the dogs again in Circle City, over three hundred miles further down his trail.
The next stage of the handler’s journey was the the very long drive from Dawson to Whitehorse, drop off all the Dawson camp stuff and then head back to Circle City, via Fairbanks in time to see Rob at the first checkpoint on the Alaskan side of the race. We also now had two additional travellers to think of as Lady had joined Hitch in the truck with us. Lady had been reluctantly dropped at Dawson because of coming into season and consequently not eating and drinking properly. She wasn’t happy to be left behind but it was best for the team and she would be the last withdrawal of the race for our team.
Despite dawdling we eventually hit the road in late afternoon, heading initially for Pelly. At this stage we still had two vehicles with us and Louise and I were sharing the driving of the car whilst Chris was primarily driving the truck with James and Cara also doing stints.
We had planned to stop at Pelly Crossing to break, change driver and refuel. However when we actually got to Pelly the gas station was shut and those of us who had been building up to a toilet break had to look for the al fresco alternative! More importantly we now had the problem of how far we could expect the truck to go on its current tank of diesel. Those that read this blog last year will know that at a similar point in the journey last year Chris and I ran out of fuel just outside of Whitehorse. We didn’t want a repeat and the only other fuel station before Whitehorse closed in a couple of hours.
Louise had driven the first three hours from Dawson to Pelly. I took the next shift and was determined to get us to Carmack and fuel before 10pm when it closed. So the next leg of the journey became something of a Smokey and the Bandit/ Cannonball Run race to get to the gas station before it closed. Louise warned me to slow down several times, for fear of moose or caribou running into the road, which I did before speeding up again as the time got closer and closer to 10pm. But we made it. We filled up and we carried on towards Whitehorse.
We changed drivers at Braeburn and I took a nighttime cold treatment tablet for my worsening sore throat. As a consequence of the medication twenty minutes into the journey I had just nodded off. I was awakened by a series of expletives and a light impact sound. This was the first of our significant encounters with wildlife on 2017 Quest. A large moose had run out of the side of the road. The expletives were Louise who did a miraculous job of stopping and light impact sound was probably the slightest of kisses of the moose’s rump on the car. Cara in the truck behind saw it happen but both of her passengers were also sleeping. There was no physical damage to car, passengers or hopefully moose. A real near miss.
After a few breaths we were underway again and got to Whitehorse in the early hours returning Cara to her hotel and us for sleep at the house. The next day we started the next long stage of our journey, now with all four of us in the dog truck but without Hitch and Lady whom we had left back at the kennel.
Our intention was to cover this stage of the journey in one day too. However, we didn’t start as early as we intended and although we made good progress to the US border once we reached Tok and “Fat Eddie’s” we weren’t going any further that evening. Rob had left Dawson at 9:30 on Friday. At 10pm Saturday we were holed up in Tok, clearly having started the Alaskan leg of the adventure but still with 400 miles to go to get to Circle. We tracked Rob’s progress to Eagle checkpoint (inaccessible to handlers by road) and then out of Eagle to Slavens and on to Circle. We were away shortly after 7am on Sunday, almost racing the musher to Circle but using a very different route. Our route took us through Fairbanks, over the Stees Highway and famously across Eagle Summit to Central and then 30 miles further to Circle. His was more direct but more challenging over American Summit.
We made the perfunctory stop for pictures at Twelve Mile summit as darkness began to fall.
The stop was short though and we rushed on to hit Circle before nightfall. We weren’t expecting Rob until Monday morning but we wanted to get over the Stees Highway before nightfall and potentially treacherous road conditions. As we came down from Eagle Summit towards Central checkpoint this was to be our next encounter with wildlife. Another Moose ran out from the side of the road and cantered along the highway in front of us for a couple of hundred metres before veering off into the undergrowth.
This wasn’t the last encounter we would have with Moose but it would be the last until we were nearly in Fairbanks.
Once we had passed through Central, a place we would be returning to a few days later, we then got onto the last 30 miles to Circle. Its a rough and bumpy road from Central to Circle. Last year it had been a metaphor for my own difficult journey. This year was different. We were starting the Alaskan end of the adventure in an incredibly positive frame of mind.
We slept two nights in Circle camping on the floor of the community centre. Temperatures seemed to vary between stinking hot and colder than outside depending on whether the wood burner was being fed or not.In between those two nights Rob came down the Yukon and into the checkpoint.
I had been offered the opportunity by Trailbreaker John for a snow machine ride down the river to get some better photos of him coming in. It was probably the hardest thing to say no to all race. Handlers are not allowed to be on the trail and if I had been caught out on the trail Rob could have been penalised.
Then suddenly a team of Siberians appeared off the river and rushed into the checkpoint smiling as always. Yet again they looked in great shape. This twelve dogs would now go to the end of the race. None of us had any doubts about that. This is a great team putting in what seems like the performance of their lives.
The remarkable thing was with the unfortunate events surrounding Brent Sasse’s withdrawal Rob had arrived in Circle in tenth place.
Circle is one of my favourite checkpoints. There is great food for the Mushers – but for us handlers too – and every effort is made by the checkpoint staff to help out. Once Rob was in there we really knew that the Alaskan part of the race had really started.
Rob left after around five hours resting. From here the race was going to go very quickly towards the finish.
Or so we thought.