As each team dashed across the lake and into the shelter of the trees and Checkpoint 4, at LT’s Wilderness Camp, they were clearly feeling the strain of mushing for more than 24 hours, with only periodic breaks.
Dogs were fed, watered and straw was lain down for them to curl up on.
When mushers finished caring for their furry engines they huddled into a hunting cabin, rubbing wind-reddened cheeks and attempting to dry wet gear before sneaking into an available room to pass out for an hour or two.
Mushers complete these events with very little sleep, often not grabbing more than a half an hour of shuteye at anyone checkpoint.
“I don’t function well without sleep,” said Jillian Taylor, a 12-dog musher.
Since starting the race yesterday she has had about an hour and a half of sleep, and rode through much of the night.
“That’s probably what I find the most difficult,” Taylor said.
Taylor has done this race four times but as an eight-dog musher rather than a 12.
“This time seems harder, I don’t know why,” she said.
She said that perhaps it is because off-lake trail is harder packed than usual.
“That’s hard on the dogs.”
For organizers, those difficulties are becoming more evident.
“I’m concerned about the trail,” said John Edwards, vice president and trail boss.
Edwards is getting feedback from the mushers at each checkpoint and they are all encountering the same trouble with the trails especially when crossing lakes.
“The snow is very punchy,” he said.
Punchy ground means the dogs feet are literally punching through the top layer of crust, which can strain their wrists, Edward said.
“We have had average or slightly above average dropped dogs,” Edwards said.
When a dog is injured while on the trail -- or in some cases, if a dog simply decides it doesn't want to work any longer, as happened to Karen Ramstead on Wednesday-- than it gets 'bagged', and gets a free ride to the next checkpoint.
Then that dog is 'dropped' from the team for the rest of the race. If a musher has to drop too many dogs due to injury they may have to withdraw from the competition.
Edward was sad to see a longtime Canadian Challenge musher do just that.
Nine-year-veteran, Gerry Walker -- who has finished first, second, fourth and fifth in the challenge – scratched on Wednesday, after arriving at the wilderness checkpoint.
“He had three dogs with wrist injuries and he decided to scratch for the good of his dogs,” Edward said.
“The snow is very punchy,” - John Edwards, vp and trail boss
The number one priority of any musher is the health if their dogs, Edwards said.
As for who is wining the competition, that is yet undecided.
The eight-dog teams are keeping close together with the outcome far from certain.
“It’s a close race, that one,” Edwards said.
Currently the 12-dog teams have an obvious leader in the race.
Stefaan de Marie, who has 10 years experience in the Canadian Challenge, currently holds a strong lead, leaving Checkpoint 4 more than an hour before anyone else.
The wining purse for the 12-dog is $6,000 and for the 8-dog is $2,000.
The eight-dog teams will finish on Thursday or Friday and the 12-dog teams will finish on Friday or early Saturday in La Ronge.
The Junior and the Open categories had only one competitor each, Kaden Nilson and Steve Taylor, respectively, however both completed the race, with Edwards noting that Nilson did extremely well as new-comer to the sport.
An awards breakfast for all teams will be held in La Ronge on Saturday morning.