DAWSON CITY, Yukon (AP) -- Defending champion Hans Gatt of Atlin, B.C., was the first musher to hit the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race trail, leaving Dawson City Friday after a mandatory 36-hour layover.
Gatt, who left at 12:57 p.m., had nearly a two-hour lead over Martin Massicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, who left at 2:44 p.m.
William Kleedehn of Carcross was next to leave at 2:50 p.m. Thomas Tetz of Carcross left at 3:55 p.m., followed one minute later by Hugh Neff of Coldfoot. John Schandelmeier of Paxson hit the trail at 4:07 p.m.
The frontrunners have a 150-mile run to Eagle. From Dawson onward, the mushers should have an easier time of it. Snow has been falling steadily along much of the trail ahead and temperatures are dropping.
For being the first musher to reach the Gold Rush outpost of Dawson City, Gatt collected four ounces of gold.
Gatt lost his voice on Tuesday, making it impossible to yell directions to his dogs.
''It's good that they know what they're doing,'' Gatt croaked to reporters who swarmed him at the checkpoint early Thursday morning.
Despite getting advice on how to cure his laryngitis, he wasn't getting any better after some much needed rest Thursday. He was making up for the sleep he has been missing.
Gatt said he was falling asleep constantly while descending King Solomon's Dome, about 30 miles out of Dawson City. He said since the start of the race on Sunday, he only managed to get one and a half hours of sleep until arriving in town for the mandatory layover.
Before he started the race, Gatt had some serious doubts about whether he could repeat last year's win. Some of his dogs became ill and he ended up leaving three of his main dogs at home.
However, he said he's been surprised by some 3-year-olds in the team. In fact, half of the 10 dogs remaining in his team have never been in a long-distance race before, giving him more reason to be pleased with his team's performance.
Last year Gatt pulled into Dawson City behind Tok musher Peter Butteri. Gatt caught up with Butteri in the last 100 miles to win the Quest in only his second try.
Gatt, who leaves for the 150-mile trip to Eagle shortly after noon today, said all he needs to do now is maintain his lead for the rest of the race. He said he had some doubts about whether he will be able to keep ahead of friends William Kleedehn and Thomas Tetz, who were third and sixth into town Thursday morning.
Gatt said he wasn't too worried about rookie Martin Massicotte and he didn't know how good two-time Quest champion John Schandelmeier's fourth-place team looked.
Kleedehn said he's also not worried about Massicotte, a virtual unknown from Quebec who surprised everyone when he was the first one to arrive in the first checkpoint at Braeburn.
The French Canadian has consistently stayed with the front-runners, sometimes leading them.
''You watch him, see how's he doing, and see how his schedule is,'' Kleedehn said. ''This unknown guy, he's a pretty nice fella with some really good dogs, but he doesn't know what the heck he's doing. He's already racing. Basically, it has to be a miracle for him to win the race.''
By Friday mid-morning, 18 of the 19 teams remaining in the race had reached Dawson City. Paul Geoffrion, a rookie from Whitehorse, was bringing up the rear, in 19th place.
Darrin Lee of Nenana became the latest musher to scratch, dropping out of the race Thursday. Lee told race officials the weather was too warm for his dogs.
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