Finish line in sight for 2021 Yukon Journey

Martine Le Levier was the first musher in the field to reach the Braeburn checkpoint on Feb. 25, pulling in 2:59 p.m. on relatively warm – roughly -5 C to -10 C – afternoon with light snow flurries falling on and off.

Arriving with a full complement of 12 dogs, Le Levier was upbeat as she set about caring for her team.

“It was nice and warm. Not too warm, but really warm,” Le Levier said. “(The team) needs a rest and they should be fine.”

With so many mushers in the field of 11 travelling at similar pace and with similar rest schedules, Le Levier was the first in a flurry of mushers to arrive within a 90 minute window.

Ed Hopkins and 11 dogs pulled into the checkpoint at 3:12 p.m., followed by Hans Gatt with 11 dogs at 3:31 p.m. Three minutes later, it was Nathaniel Hamlyn’s turn to get checked in when he arrived with just nine dogs on the line.

Hamlyn has been in this position before – his rookie year on the Yukon Quest he ran a majority of the race with a single-digit number of dogs, including a final stretch from Braeburn to the finish – but the difference is those dogs were “concrete” in his words, and this team is a little less polished as older, more experienced dogs have retired.

Jason Biasetti and his team reached the checkpoint at 3:58 p.m. with 10 dogs on the line. Nearly 30 minutes later, Kyla Boivin arrived at 4:25 p.m. and Connor McMahon arrived at 4:27 p.m.

Susie Rogan reached the checkpoint at 6:03 p.m., Paul Hamlyn reached Braeburn at 6:34 p.m., and Jacob Heigers reached Braeburn at 6:49 p.m.

Trail talk

One of the great things about mushing, particularly mid-distance and long-distance races, is no two mushers will have the same take on conditions.

Le Levier led all the way from the Mandanna Lake time station to the Braeburn checkpoint, meaing her team was the one to navigate the blown-in trails along the Chain Lakes and other open areas.

“It’s always nice to have someone in front,” she said when asked about leading the whole way. “If you can chase, it’s easier for the dogs.”

The wind, she said, made things difficult for her dogs in the open areas. Stretches where the trail weaved through the forest, however, were ideal.

Both Hopkins and Gatt seemed relatively happy with the trail conditions, while Nathaniel, who pulled in fourth, was quick to point out that the soft trail was rather “punchy” and forced the dogs to work harder to keep up the forward progress, and also likely increased the risk of shoulder injuries.

“The lakes were pretty punchy for sure,” Hamlyn said. “Slow going.”

What was universal was a shared sentiment that the temperatures, approximately -7 C at 5 p.m., were a bit on the warm side for the dogs, if not the mushers.

The pre-race trail report had warned of open water and possible overflow on this stretch of trail, but it seems that teams were able to navigate their way through and stay dry.

Finish time?

With the race’s format of 20 hours of mandatory rest spread over five checkpoints and time stations, things can easily get a little murky when it comes to determining who’s really leading the race and when a finish could be expected.

Le Levier told media she planned to stay seven hours in Braeburn, meaning an 10 p.m. departure is her likely course with three hours remaining for the final time station stop.

Gatt, who reached Braeburn needing 8.5 hours of rest, said he’ll be spending six hours of that in Braeburn in order to leave himself a 2.5-hour rest at the final time station.

While the pace did slow somewhat today due to softer trail conditions and blown-in stretches, if things continue more or less as they are then a winner could be at the finish line in Whitehorse as early as 8 a.m.

Sights from the Braeburn checkpoint