Two mushers complete stormy Nome-Council sled dog race
At 10 a.m. sharp, the calm of Saturday’s blue skies were shattered by the barking of dogs and the pandemonium that ensued as four dog teams leaped, en masse, off the starting line of the Nome Kennel Club’s Nome-Council 200 race.
Three Nome mushers, Diana Haecker, Stephanie Johnson and Reese Madden, took on the hard packed, fast trail. Paul Hansen traveled from Kotzebue with 12 dogs to compete. The 200-mile race counts as an Iditarod qualifier, which is why Hansen made the journey with help from his sponsor Bering Air.
Teams traveled on the Iditarod trail until just before White Mountain, where they turned north and headed to Council. Mushers were required to have taken a 10-hour rest either at Topkok or Council by the time they left Council. The rest time was increased from six hours mandatory rest last year.
The calm weather at the start line in Nome on Saturday was deceptive. Calm and near perfect conditions prevailed from Nome to Solomon, about 30 miles into the race. Then things changed dramatically as winds kicked up significantly from Solomon, through the infamous blowhole, Topkok and even worsening in the Topkok hills, all the way to Council.
“The way out was challenging,” Hansen said. Once Hansen and his team crossed Cape Nome, he saw a big cloud of blowing snow ahead that they had to “struggle through.” Sleds were pushed off the trail by the wind, “We bounced off of every Iditarod post out there,” Hansen said. Both he and Haecker said they were blown into trail markers and tripods that mark the Iditarod trail. “We were left standing, one tripod wasn’t,” Haecker recounted.
The blowing snow formed drifts on the trail, making it challenging for teams to fight against the wind and through deep snowdrifts. Hansen said that, training in Kotzebue, his team was prepared for the windy conditions. He planned to stop for a few hours on the way to Council, but ran straight through due to the wind.
“That was a very tough run,” Haecker agreed. Since Nome has had a windy winter, Haecker and her team were prepared for the weather, but the conditions still surprised her. Haecker praised her dogs for their effort during the storm, “They just kept motoring. It took a lot of courage to get through that,” she said.
Haecker explained that she expected the wind to die down once she reached the Topkok hills, but she said it blew even harder. “It just took you like a rag doll and pushed the team sideways.” The wind pushed her sled, which weighed about 60 pounds, into the tripods and over on its side time and time again. Each time, she had to turn it over and get back on the runners.
She had to stop often to remove the ice that formed around her dogs’ eyes and chins, but neglected to pull up her own ruff. She needed to give her team commands to find the best way through the snowdrifts, and couldn’t do so if she couldn’t see her surroundings. It wasn’t until she walked into the warmth of the Council cabin that she realized she couldn’t move her face.
Teams rested at Garrett Glodek’s camp in Council during their layover. Hansen was already a few hours ahead of Haecker when he arrived at the halfway point at 7:42 p.m., and he decided to give his team a longer rest. He and Haecker were the only mushers to make it to the halfway point.
Luckily for racers, Sunday brought calm winds and more sun. “The return trip was glorious,” Hansen said. In fact, he enjoyed the journey so much he and his team added extra, albeit unintentional, loop. After crossing the Beam Road on his way to town, Hansen followed the wrong set of trail stakes. “It turns out there’s lots of stakes in Nome,” Hansen laughed. He ended up going across the Nome-Teller Highway before realizing he had taken the wrong trail.
Haecker also had a successful run back. “It was just as beautiful as it could be, you could see for 50 miles (on the Topkok hills),” she said. Since there was no wind, Haecker had to worry about her team overheating. She opted to rest for two hours in Solomon before making the final push home.
Hansen won the race with time to spare, despite his detour. He finished with all 12 dogs at 6:05 p.m. on Sunday evening, about five hours before the second place competitor, Haecker. Haecker pulled into Nome at 10:58 p.m. with a wind-burned face and 10 dogs. This year’s finish contrasted with last year’s, when conditions were pleasant and Tom Jamgochian defeated Rolland Trowbridge by eight minutes.
Hansen is currently preparing for the Kobuk 440, and said the Nome-Council race provided a good, long training run.
Haecker also mentioned the rough trail. She said that, while most sections of the trail were perfect, the stretch between Solomon and Topkok had a lot of bare ground and beach that made for rough going. Crossing glare ice and dodging around pieces driftwood in the windstorm was also a challenge for the mushers.
Musher Stephanie Johnson scratched outside of Topkok. The bare trail was hard on her sled and a piece of driftwood broke one of her sled runners. Pebbles jammed between the plastic and metal of her runners and froze. When Johnson was almost a quarter of the way into the race, a six-inch crack developed in the metal of her sled runner. She guesses that the rocks and sand that were embedded in her runner had weakened the metal, and the frozen, exposed gravel on the trail did not help.
Although Johnson froze her fingers in the process, she could not completely rid the plastic of the mass of ice, snow and rocks. She cleaned the plastic as best she could and left Topkok. A few miles into the Topkok hills, it became evident that the plastic wouldn’t hold. She brought extra runner plastic, but the compromised section of runner would not allow it to stay put. The runner kept digging into the snow, making more resistance for the dogs. “I realized I had over 30 miles (to Council) and I didn’t want to endanger myself or my dogs,” Johnson said of her decision to scratch.
After spending the night in Topkok, Johnston and her team were able to mush home. “I couldn’t be more proud of my dogs,” she said. The animals waited patiently while she stopped frequently to re-adjust her runner.
Reese Madden was significantly behind the pack throughout the race and diverted to White Mountain. He arrived there on Sunday. White Mountain is not a checkpoint in the official route of the race. According to NKC officials he wanted to make it back to Nome on his own power as of Monday night.
The race airplane support to fly food drops to Council and to fly dropped dogs back to Nome. Three planes were in the Council checkpoint, and a veterinarian from Anchorage was flown in. The vet examined the dogs when they arrived and before they left Council. The veterinarian also saw pet patients in Nome, prior and after the sled dog race.
Race sponsors included Bering Straits Native Corporation, Bering Air, Sitnasuak Native Corporation, Bonanza Fuel, Northern Gold Diggers, Northern Geology, Council Native Corporation, Nome Gold Alaska Corporation, Dr. Carson’s animal food supplements, Garret Glodeck’s Bear Creek camp, Alaska Airlines, Alaska Commercial Company, Norton Sound Health Corporation, the City of Nome for the use of the race start and finish at the snowdump and Ravn Alaska.
2016 Nome-Council 200 race results:
1. Paul Hansen 32 hours 6 minutes
2. Diana Haecker 37 hours 2 minutes
Stephanie Johnson scratched at Topkok (outbound)
Reese Madden (withdrawn)