Hugh Neff, crossing the finish line to win the Yukon Quest, credits Walter, a 7-year-old Alaskan husky, for leading his comeback victory. (Scott Chesney, Yukon Quest / February 14, 2012)
By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune reporter
February 15, 2012
Near the end of a 1,000-mile dog sled race, in the middle of the night in the middle of Canada's Great White North, a 44-year-old man who grew up in Evanston hitched his hopes to an indomitable 7-year-old Alaskan husky named for the running back who had pulled the Bears to many a triumph.
And Walter pulled Hugh Neff's team to the first victory of his mushing career after the closest finish in the history of the Yukon Quest, a race many consider tougher than the better-known Iditarod.
"This was all about heart, and Walter had the heart of Sweetness," Neff said by telephone Tuesday from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.
At 5:14 a.m. local time Tuesday, almost 11 days after he and 14 dogs had left Fairbanks, Alaska, Neff had become the race's 29th winner by just 26 seconds over Allen Moore. The smallest previous winning margin was four minutes in 2009, when Neff was second.
"It was quite a comeback," said Neff, a Loyola Academy graduate who moved from Evanston to Alaska 17 years ago and began sled dog racing three years later.
Having been assessed a 30-minute penalty for leaving his mandatory ax behind in Dawson City, where he had forgotten to repack the implement after using it to chop fish, Neff began the final 100-mile leg 42 minutes behind Moore.
Halfway through the leg, a fan told Neff he had cut the deficit to about 20 minutes. That is where Walter took over.
Sled dogs have two kinds of running styles, Neff explained. Some trot, while others lope, which is more like a sprint. Despite being about 15 pounds heavier than most dogs in the race, Walter morphed into Usain Bolt — for several hours.
"He was too big for this kind of track, but he literally loped 60 miles," Neff said.
When he had closed the gap to about 200 yards, Neff turned on his miner's lamp to avoid surprising his rival. That turned out to be a mistake, as Moore upped his tempo after seeing the light, making the chase last another six miles.
Neff crossed the finish line with just eight of his original 14 dogs pulling the sled and one as a passenger during the final five miles. It is common for some dogs to be left behind with medical staff at one of the race's checkpoints because they are too tired to continue.
"You are only as fast as your slowest dog," Neff said.
Neff had begun racing three years after arriving in Alaska with two pet dogs — neither a husky — a backpack, $200 and no idea what dog mushing was.
A checkered academic career at the University of Illinois led him to follow a call to the northern wilderness first heard by reading Jack London as a child.
He acknowledged the impact of books on his life by carrying a copy of Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" in his gear during the race. In a program called "Read Across Alaska," Neff gives several dozen speeches a year in schools, stressing literacy and living your dreams on behalf of the National Education Association, a sponsor of his sled team.
"I'm living mine," he said.
Friends from the Athabascan people, for whom sleds are a traditional form of transportation, introduced Neff to mushing. He now owns Laughing Eyes Kennel in Tok, Alaska and races in both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod every year.
"I'm the iron man of dog mushing," he said.
Since 2000, he has done the two 1,000-mile races 20 times — 12 Yukon Quests, eight Iditarods. He was the Iditarod's rookie of the year in 2004 and plans to run it again in March.
"The Iditarod is more glamorous, but the Quest is about the North and the history of the North," he said.
Compared to the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest has more climbs of substantial elevation, comes at a time of year with less daylight and generally colder weather, uses fewer dogs and has fewer checkpoints at greater mileage separation.
That means the mushers have to carry more gear and food for dogs that Neff said eat 10,000 calories a day.
"It's all about dog care," he said. "In many cases, the humans are the wimps. I'll be huffing and puffing at the top of mountains and the dogs are fine."
Neff mushed for 9 days, 17 hours, 14 minutes and 49 seconds, much in unseasonably warm, 30-degree temperatures. His reward for beating a field with 23 starters, only four of whom had finished by late Tuesday afternoon, included a first prize of $28,395.
"In this part of the world, this is as big as winning the Indy 500 or March Madness," he said. "My life is going to get pretty interesting soon."
It has been for a dog's age.