Lead changes on the race up the coast
After what appeared to be a snow-filled race start allowing a steady pace through the Alaska Range mushers met with areas of sparse snow and unforgiving tussocks going into the Iditarod checkpoint, about halfway into the race.
For those who tightened up loose bolts, mended sleds or swapped out to a fresh one they then faced a mushy wet, run up the Yukon River and heading into Unalakleet.
First into Unalakleet winning the inaugural Ryan Air Gold Coast Award, was Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit at 9:46 a.m. Sunday, March 10 with 10 dogs. Wilfred “Boyuck” Ryan, the company’s president, presented Petit with the Gold Coast Award. The award consists of $1,500 in gold nuggets from the Bering Straits region, as well as a carved ivory dog sled team made by Leonard Savage of Holy Cross. Ryan Air is a new Lead Dog sponsor of the Iditarod for 2019. The company was founded in Unalakleet and its core business is serving the people who live along the Bering Sea coast and throughout western Alaska. “The Iditarod is a celebration of Alaska culture and history and we are thrilled to be a part of it. My grandpa, Frank Ryan, drove mail by dog team between Unalakleet and Kaltag in the early 1900s, and my dad, Wilfred, mushed dogs in the territorial guard with Muktuk Marston. Our support of the race is a continuation of that spirit of service and dedication to the communities along the trail,” said Ryan.
At this point in the race Petit had a sizable lead on the next closest competitors of reigning champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Pete Kaiser, Jessie Royer and former three-time champion Mitch Seavey. Petit ran 11 hours straight without resting from Kaltag to Unalakleet, then rested for five hours in the checkpoint. Ulsom, Kaiser, Royer and Seavey chose a different strategy and broke the 85-mile portage run in two and were resting 20 miles outside of Unalakleet at the detour at Cheroski Creek. All four chasers did not stop in Unalakleet to rest, but left relatively quickly after required gear and veterinary checks.
Petit’s team, however, hit the wall. Running through Shaktoolik, his plan was to stop to rest at a shelter cabin en route to Koyuk. The dogs stopped a few miles before the shelter cabin. Tracker movement suggests that he sat there on the ice for a while and then led the dogs to the cabin. According to a interview with the Iditarod Insider team, Petit said he slowed his team to let one dog pee and another dog jumped it, prompting him to yell breaking up the fight. According to Petit that doesn’t happen, that “dad” yells at the dogs. Petit spent the night at the cabin. The next day, Monday, Iditarod issued a press release saying that Petit scratched at Shaktoolik at 7 p.m. “Petit scratched in the best interest of his race team’s mental well-being. Petit and his race team were brought back to Shaktoolik by snowmachine and trail sled for transport through Unalakleet and then on to Anchorage,” the release said. Petit had 10 dogs with him at the time he decided to scratch.
The next several mushers coming to Unalakleet stayed long enough in the Norton Sound community to provide a bit of information on the trail conditions. Most reported encountering multiple areas of open water as they were hauling up their wet mukluks, socks and other gear to the dryers offered at the community center.
Nome musher Aaron Burmeister was in good spirits as he fed his team, happy that the 11 dogs he had in harness were finally eating well and perking up after nursing them through a bug that he said usually runs through teams when the race temps are on the warmer side.
“It’s been 30 degrees just about the whole race,” said Burmeister “It’s so warm they haven’t wanted to eat as much,” referring to his team.
Burmeister pointed out one dog named “Texas” aka “Tex” as his best eater who was wolfing down kibble, meat and fish snacks barely stopping to chew. Tex looked like he hadn’t ever skipped a meal and maybe enjoyed finishing his teammates, too. Burmeister said he was looking forward to a short rest and a hearty helping of Sourdough pancakes, always served up fresh along with eggs to order by the around-the-clock volunteer staff at the community center that serves as the Unalakleet checkpoint. William “Middy” Johnson, Unalakleet resident, former Mayor and one-time Iditarod finisher, along with his wife Aurora have coordinated the food and volunteers since 2011.
Community members young and old come and go at all times bringing food, crafts and stories to share while mushers get their fill of food and rest.
Jessie Holmes, who also appears in the documentary television show “Life Below Zero” talked easily with media and veterinarians as he fed and bedded down his dogs. “In some ways I still feel like a rookie out there,” he said. He received last year’s rookie of the year honors.
Holmes described resting at the Old Woman cabin along with fellow musher Aliy Zirkle and having a low moment when he was contemplating falling back from “race mode” and Zirkle giving him a bit of a pep talk. Both mushers arrived just at dusk bedding down their dogs, talking with race veterinarians about particular dogs, who they were watching for sore wrists or shoulders.
Later in the checkpoint Holmes thanked Zirkle for encouraging him to keep going.
Despite being visibly tired, Zirkle displayed her usual big smile while giving gracious and patient attention to fans asking for photos as well as thanking the children holding up signs showing their support for her and her team.
She was greeted by her father Doug and husband Allen Moore, also an Iditarod veteran and multiple Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion. Moore had flown in to help give Zirkle a boost of love and family support.
After just a few hours rest she and Holmes headed on towards Shaktoolik while the checkpoint swelled with multiple teams arriving in succession throughout the dark of night. With Petit stalled near Shaktoolik, and eventually scratching, the chase pack of Ulsom, Kaiser and Royer became the lead pack with Kaiser moving to the front leading into Shaktoolik almost an hour ahead of Ulsom.
Kaiser maintained that lead all the way through Koyuk, Elim and into White Mountain at 8:05 a.m., only giving up a bit of cushion when he pulled into the last official checkpoint 45 minutes in front of Ulsom.
For being first into the picturesque village on the banks of the Fish River Iditarod Lead Dog partner Northrim Bank presented Kaiser with the Achieve More Award, which includes $2,500 and a one-of-a-kind print by Anchorage Artist Marianne Wieland. Third place Jessie Royer arrived four hours after Olsom at 12:40 p.m. with Zirkle in fourth about seven hours later.
Throughout the morning snow softly fell on the village creating a snow globe effect around the teams resting side-by-side on the river below the community hall that serves as the checkpoint. Inside Kaiser, Ulsom and then Royer alternated between resting, eating and talking with each other and the various race officials, veterinarians, community members and media assembled inside. For being so close to the end of the race the mushers were relaxed and jovial.
Kaiser enjoyed cupcakes and Alaska Native foods brought to him by villagers while Ulsom decided to try slices of pizza and a burrito that Kaiser was not going to eat from his meal stash. “I’ve been watching Pete eat this along the way and it looked good,” Ulsom said.
When ask how his team was fairing with the warmer temperatures, Kaiser said good. “My dogs have been training all season in Bethel at 35 degrees so they’re used to it.” Kaiser said he, too, was enjoying the warmth and that it was the first Iditarod he’d gone almost the whole race without wearing heavy gloves and had not used the fur hat he’d brought. “I’ve been wearing a baseball cap the whole way,” he said.
Royer commented on her arrival that once the sun rose on the trail she could clearly see the tracks of two sleds ahead of her going toward White Mountain and thinking, “Well, I guess I’m in third place.”
By the time Kaiser and Ulsom started prepping their teams to leave the snow stopped and the sun shown brightly on the white snow covered river. Both dog teams were moving a bit sluggishly out of the checkpoint through the soft snow hugging the riverbank avoiding areas of overflow farther out. When they were a couple miles away from White Mountain they had revved up to moving average speeds of seven miles per hour only seven miles apart as they raced toward Nome.