Dan Kaduce crossed the finish line at 7:02 p.m. Monday in Central to win the 2021 Summit Quest 300, in a scaled-back, experimental year for the Yukon Quest sled dog race.
Because of COVID-19, Kaduce finished without any of the usual fanfare. A crowd mostly of veterinarians and race officials greeted him at a finish marked by a single bale of hay.
Likewise, Kaduce was low-key about his win.
“I’m happy about it, I guess,” he said at the finish line. “A little bit surprised just because I don’t win a lot of dog races.”
He won’t receive prize money comparable to a 1,000-mile race, but said it is the biggest win of his racing career.
Kaduce’s win comes after a substantial rule change requiring longer-than-usual rests at checkpoints to boost dog health. While some mushers complained it took away from trail camping tactics, many mushers said they liked the mandatory 22-hour rest rule.
“I hope it sticks around, and maybe catches on for more racing,” Kaduce said.
Some racers were more skeptical, but acknowledged either way, it’s something they’re willing to adapt to if veterinarians think it’s good for the sport.
Head Veterinarian Nina Hansen liked the changes. Her team analyzed dogs at every checkpoint to determine how much body fat they were carrying. She thinks once all the data is analyzed, it will show that the rule helped dogs finish healthier.
“Anecdotally, subjectively, not having crunched the numbers — I think the dogs are finishing in better condition,” she said. Having better body condition means less likelihood of injuries or low blood sugar, which can cause strokes and even death.
It will ultimately be up to the Yukon Quest board of directors to decide whether to keep the experimental rules, and how to adapt them if a 1,000-mile race takes place next year.
Kaduce said the rules helped his team, giving them about 50% more rest time than top teams normally get.
“That’s way our style,” he said, “If it was a stand-up contest, we would not be here first.”
Though he said he wasn’t focused on the competition, Kaduce’s team was the first into every checkpoint beginning at Mile 101, about 115 miles into the race. His two leaders, Titan and Phoenix, ran in front the entire race, and a few of his dogs, named after famous murderers such as Charles Manson, also did pretty well.
“They pretty much killed it,” he joked.
Racers also had to contend with new restrictions at checkpoints. Usually, racers can sleep in a warm bunkhouse at most stops. But because of COVID-19, racers had to sleep in their trucks this year. Despite the challenges, conditions were relatively good throughout the race with firm trail and little overflow in creeks.
The exception to the good conditions were frigid temperatures of close to -50 Fahrenheit on Birch Creek and low snow going over Eagle and Rosebud Summits.
Less snow led to problems for many teams, including Rookie Bridgett Watkins, who got off trail at the top of Rosebud Summit early on in the race.
“I went ‘gee’ instead of ‘haw’,” said Watkins, referencing mushing commands for “left” and “right.” “What happens when you go ‘gee’ is you go off the face of Rosebud.”
Watkins plunged down a dangerously steep mountainside and, without snow cover, there was nowhere to set her snow hook.
“We were flying, freefalling, so when I finally got them stopped, I stood there for like 10 minutes, literally, because I couldn’t put a hook down and I couldn’t get off my brake,” she said.
Others had sled runners stripped off because of the rocky ground, and some sleds broke.
Still, this year’s low-key atmosphere kept the stakes down for racers so they could focus on enjoying the trail and learning about their younger dogs.
For officials, holding the race was about keeping the Yukon Quest on people’s minds so next year they can bring back the full 1,000-mile event.