Musher Jake Berkowitz gives a pill to one of his dogs on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, in Dawson City. The Big Lake musher arrived at the mid-way checkpoint in third place. Photo by Jeff Richardson/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
UPDATE: FAIRBANKS - Lance Mackey, a four-time Yukon Quest champion, officially scratched this morning in Dawson, Yukon.
Mackey, who has also won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times, said he was quitting for the well-being of his team, which was down to seven dogs out of his original lineup of 14. He is the third musher to leave the race. Ed Abrahamson and Kelley Griffin have also scratched.
The front-runners left the halfway point of Dawson this morning. Defending champion Hugh Neff left with 12 dogs at 5:10 a.m. Yukon time after a 40-hour layover. He was followed two hours later by Allen Moore, with 11 dogs.
Twenty-three of 26 mushers are still on the trail of the 30th running of the 1,000 mile sled dog race. Jake Berkowitz is the next to leave Dawson, just after noon local time. Four other mushers are still on the trail from Scroggy Creek to Dawson.
The mushers will be on a rerouted trail that follows the Yukon River across the U.S. border directly to Eagle, bypassing a 50-mile loop up the Fortymile River and across American Summit, which was erased by strong winds.
PREVIOUS STORY: DAWSON CITY, Yukon — When Jake Berkowitz looks at the top teams in this year’s Yukon Quest, the Big Lake musher sees a lot of familiar dogs.
Berkowitz, the 2012 Quest Rookie of the Year, has so far put together an even better performance in 2013, with a third-place status in Dawson. More unexpected is the position of the driver of his B-team, Markus Ingebretsen, who entered the unofficial midway point in sixth place. Both of them still have their full 14-dog teams.
Ingebretsen’s rise is perhaps the most improbable detail in a story that’s full of them.
“I knew he’d be good, but I was hoping he’d be top 10,” said Berkowitz, resting in a tent at the Dawson checkpoint dog lot. “I didn’t know he’d be up this high.”
Berkowitz, 26, and Ingebretsen, 21, are among the youngest mushers in the Quest. Berkowitz’s handlers are his pregnant wife, Robin, his dad and his father-in-law.
But Berkowitz’s Apex Kennel uses a professional approach befitting a seasoned veteran.
With a plan to develop a deep pool of sled dogs for long-distance races, Berkowitz hired Ingebretsen in August to pilot his B-team. The pair has trained and worked together ever since, with Berkowitz using a structured rotation for his kennel and the distance each dog accumulates.
He’ll run the Iditarod in March and exudes confidence when discussing how his Quest experience will pay off.
“Twenty-eight dogs, that’s what I’m impressed with,” Berkowitz said. “I’ve got 28 dogs with 1,000-mile experience to choose from on the Iditarod.”
Berkowitz, who has been a full-time musher since soon after graduating from high school, spent his early years running mid-distance races while soaking in knowledge from veteran Alaska mushers like Zack Steer and John Little.
He took the next step by buying Quest veteran Jon Little’s kennel three years ago. Little’s star dog, Solomon, fathered 23 of the 28 Apex dogs being run in this year’s Quest.
Berkowitz said the quality of the genetics of his kennel is hard to overstate.
“They’re dogs that are always happy, they always want to run and their recovery times are unbelievable,” he said. “They can rest for four hours and be ready to go again.”
Berkowitz said a focus on nutrition and training also are paying off.
He hired Ingebretsen, who had little mushing experience, because he wanted someone who would be fine working with a highly scripted program for developing the kennel. They do everything, from feeding dogs to scooping the yard.
“I really knew I wanted a guy who never ran dogs before,” he said. “I wanted a guy who would do whatever I said and wouldn’t do any different.”
Ingebretsen got interested in the sport after meeting a musher during a failed around-the-globe sailboat voyage, he said. He provided sled dog tours with a company in his native Norway briefly before being hired at Apex Kennel.
“I guess I’d see some dog mushing on TV, but where I’m from, it’s not really a thing,” Ingebretsen said. “I didn’t know it’s something someone like me could do.”
However, Ingebretsen has taken to mushing just fine. Berkowitz said he wouldn’t be surprised if his mushing partner challenged him on the trail ahead.
“I don’t know about that,” Ingebretsen said with a smile. “There’s a reason why there’s an A and B team.”
Berkowitz also said he’s more prepared for the 2013 Quest. He’s in better shape, losing 65 pounds after setting aside convenience store food for vegetables and lean protein.
He’s noticed a difference, zipping up hills his team would have crept over in the past.
“I was in bad shape,” he said. “I’d get off the sled and waddle to the car.”
Berkowitz said he’s got nine veteran dogs this year that are performing splendidly, along with five 2-year-old dogs that still are finding their way. He could have stacked his Quest team a little more but said it’s important for his kennel’s development to team young dogs with veterans.
In the years ahead, he said, the pairings are going to pay off.
“I’m looking at next year’s team — and you can quote me on this — that team will be unstoppable,” he said.
Follow Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Jeff Richardson on Twitter: @FDNMquest.