A few grunts and yips broke the morning silence as the team approached the top of the pass. 8 dogs, pulling hard, and the driver yelling encouragement.“Come on guys!  You got it!  Let’s go, just a little more!”  The driver’s lanky frame was bowed with effort, as though he was keeping a small car from rolling backwards down a mountain.  And suddenly it was over, the team crested the top where a flat, open field allowed them a break and a chance to catch their breath.  The driver lashed the sled to a trail marker, staggered up to the lead dogs and collapsed over the top of them.“Good job!  Good job!”  Tails wagged and the team laid down in the short brown grass blown free of snow from the wind.  The driver, Brent Sass, paused just long enough to congratulate each furry head, then he jumped up, left his team, and ran back down the trail.  A few minutes later Sass came staggering back up the trail, his body bowed over with exertion once again.  His arms were stretched out behind his back as he pulled hard on a snow hook attached to a gangline with 9 dogs, a sled and a struggling William Kleedehn.  The procession inched its way up the hillside before finally reaching the summit’s plateau.  The two drivers spoke briefly at the top, then Sass went back to his team, righted his sled and took off down the trail.The short meeting was an impressive display of sportsmanship witnessed by only a few photographers and trail maintenance volunteers, but it was a defining moment in the 2009 Yukon Quest.  Brent Sass would go on to receive the 2009 Sportsmanship Award for his efforts and place seventh, while William Kleedehn’s struggles near Eagle Summit caused a major shift in the leader board with only 150 miles left in the race.Kleedehn looked exhausted as he ate breakfast later outside in the sunshine at the Mile 101 Checkpoint. The 34 miles from Central took over 16 hours for the Quest veteran to complete as a female dog in heat disrupted his team, high winds obscured the trail and Eagle Summit’s steep terrain took its toll. As he stared back at the summit he vowed never to run the Quest from Whitehorse to Fairbanks again.  The Summit was too much of an unknown to come so late in a race he felt was his to lose by Central.  Kleedehn continued on to finish sixth in the Quest with his trademark determination, but at the Awards Banquet he announced he was done with the Quest for good.The 2009 Yukon Quest started with 29 teams in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The 2008 Champion Lance Mackey decided to save his team for the Iditarod this year but there was a solid group of veterans and a few well known rookies like Martin Buser and Warren Palfrey. Excellent trail conditions and favorable temperatures kept the race tight well into Pelly Crossing, 250 miles in. Jon Little arrived first and a few hours later Kleedehn, Hugh Neff, Hans Gatt and Sebastian Schnuelle pulled in within the hour.The following 201 miles to Dawson City allowed drivers to develop their own races with less visibility from checkpoints and more camping. The Scroggie Creek dog drop showed Kleedehn in the lead with Neff and Little close behind. Leadership switched a few more times on the way to Dawson City but Kleedehn surprised the gathered crowds by arriving first, just 2 minutes ahead of Little, Neff arrived an hour later. Gatt and Schnuelle rounded out the top 5 within 3 more hours setting up another tight exit after the mandatory 36 hour layover.In Dawson City Hans Gatt decided his team looked like a winner for the 2009 Iditarod, and with 3 Quest wins already in hand, he made the difficult choice to scratch and save his team’s energy. He waited until Kleedehn, Little and Neff left the checkpoint Thursday, February 19, to announce his decision which bumped Brent Sass into the top five, less than one hour behind Schnuelle.The next 315 miles of trail from Dawson City to Circle via Eagle follows the Yukon River where jumble ice and tough trail conditions are often a major factor for Quest teams.  This year the Quest appointed John Schandelmeier to coordinate trail maintenance on the Alaska side of the race.  His efforts, and a snow storm that blew in Friday, February 20, helped smooth the trail along the Yukon River and kept the leaders at a record setting pace.Saturday night, February 21, Kleedehn pulled into Circle followed by Neff, Little, Schnuelle and Sass, the same order the top five came through Eagle.  There was 12 hours of separation in the group now and most of Little’s team had diarrhea.  Neff remained close behind Kleedehn, but Kleedehn’s faster run times between checkpoints meant Neff was shaving rest time at the checkpoints.  Little was barely out of the dog yard in Circle when he swung his team back in to drop a dog before heading off again in the early morning light to Central.  Schnuelle maintained his rhythm of resting on the trail and stopping at the checkpoints just long enough to check in and out.  In Central he finally stopped long enough to have some food and a bit of rest.“This is like a big camping trip for me,” he said.  “I am all alone, I don’t see anybody.”Farther down the line the teams had spread out and separated roughly into 3 groups.  Martin Buser, Michelle Phillips, Warren Palfrey and Dan Kaduce were running a tight race, followed by Normand Casavant, Mark Sleightholme, Newton Marshall, Colleen Robertia, Kyla Boivin, Luc Tweddell, Wayne Hall, William Pinkham, Jason Mackey and Russ Bybee.  Behind them Yuka Honda, Becca Moore and Iris Wood Sutton brought up the tail end of the race.  Mike Ellis scratched in Circle, Mackey, Bybee and Boivin in Central, and Honda would scratch at Mile 101.Monday morning, February 23, Schnuelle left Central in fourth at 4:30 a.m. after 5 hours of rest.  “Suddenly I see William coming down the trail toward me.”  Schnuelle said, “I thought, ‘This can’t be,’”    Kleedehn was headed back to Central.  A dog in heat brought his team to a standstill at the base of Eagle Summit and he needed to drop it.  Schnuelle convinced him to turn around and agreed to help him part way up the summit.Schnuelle looked up to the top and watched Neff and Little cresting the summit.  “I give you half an hour,” he told Kleedehn, “but that’s it.”  “I thought that could be the most expensive half hour of my life.”  Schnuelle said later.  He succeeded in helping Kleedehn partway up the summit, then left him to chase the leaders. Three hours later Brent Sass would find Kleedehn stuck on the steepest part of the climb and help him all the way to the summit.Eagle Summit changed things for a few other mushers as well. Just before leaving Central for the summit Neff was assessed a 2-hour penalty for running on the road between Circle and Central. He felt the penalty would decide the race and left the checkpoint highly frustrated. His partner and handler Tamra Reynolds was in tears.  Jon Little seemed to benefit from crossing Eagle Summit.  Although it took him 13 hours to get 34 miles to the 101 checkpoint the diarrhea in his team stopped being a problem.“I think the summit scared the shit out of them.” he joked later as he took his mandatory 8-hour layover at Twin Bears Campground in Two Rivers.  “They’re all healthy now.”Brent Sass decided to run the 115 miles from Central to Two Rivers in one shot.  “It was a mistake.”  he said later.  After he took his mandatory 8 hour layover in Two Rivers his dogs shut down on the home stretch to the finish line in Fairbanks.  It took him an agonizing 12 hours to complete the final 45 mile leg as he watched Martin Buser, Michelle Phillips and William Kleedehn pass him by.The final run down the Chena River into Fairbanks was the tightest Quest finish on record.  Despite his 2 hour penalty, Neff left the Two Rivers checkpoint just 35 minutes behind Schnuelle and managed to erase 31 minutes over the next 45 miles to come in 4 minutes behind Schnuelle for second place.  Schnuelle’s finish at 10:44 a.m. sets a new Quest record of 9 days 23 hours 20 minutes.  Little arrived less than an hour later to claim third with a time that would also have set a new Quest record.  Buser and Phillips put on a show for fourth and fifth place respectively with their headlamps crossing the finish line just seconds apart at 9:04 p.m.Eighteen out of 29 mushers finished the 2009 Yukon Quest, a scratch rate of over 60% and nearly double the average despite good trails and a record finish time.  At the awards banquet the Veterinarians’ Choice Award went to Michelle Phillips. Martin Buser took home Rookie of the Year. The Challenge of the North Award was given to Newton Marshall. The Dawson City Award went to William Kleedehn. The mushers awarded Brent Sass with the Sportsmanship Award. The Golden Harness Award went to Schnuelle’s lead dogs Inuk and Nemo and the Red Lantern went to Iris Wood Sutton for finishing in 13 days 23 hours and 17 minutes.John Gaedeke is a photographer and carpenter born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. During the summers he runs Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge in Alaska’s Brooks Range.


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