Team 10 Morgan and Olds wins Iron Dog
Nome’s Mike Morgan and teammate Chris Olds of Eagle River are the victors in the 2018 Iron Dog snow machine race. The pair arrived first to the halfway point in Nome and held a small lead all the way to the Saturday afternoon finish in Fairbanks.
Team 6 with Brad George and Robby Schachle followed them in four minutes and thirteen seconds later. Team 16, Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, the third place finishers, were back just another four minutes twenty one seconds.
The four-minute margin of victory was slim for a race of over 2,000 miles.
“Oh yeah, that’s really small,” said Morgan. “That’s a smaller margin than there was in the Nome-Golovin race last year.”
Morgan and Olds left Nome first with a 25 minute lead on the next team. They went all the way to Ruby on that run, arriving to see that their lead was down to 15 minutes.
“It was kind of crazy,” said Morgan. “We were breaking trail. There was a lot of snow on the way back, all the way to Fairbanks. That’s how those other teams were able to make some time on us, to creep up on us.”
Then just before Manley Hot Springs a mechanical problem cast a shadow over the prospect of victory.
“We had a bearing that was going out on both sleds,” said Morgan. First Olds’ sled developed the problem headed into Manley and Morgan towed him in to the checkpoint. Then the exact same jackshaft bearing went out on Morgan’s sled on the Fairbanks side of Nenana. The chasers were able to close the gap even more but Team 10 kept the lead.
How does if feel to be the winner of the 2018 Iron Dog?
“It feels good to be a champion, said Morgan.” Definitely. Hard work pays off man.”
Asked about planning for next year he replied he was going to enjoy this moment for a while, soak it all in.
On the way up to Nome, Team 8, Aklestad and Johnson, was first into Unalakleet. But on the trail to Nome they had mechanical problems, which cost them a lot of time. Team 10 passed them on the trail and arrived in Nome first. A large crowd assembled along the highway to welcome the local driver and his teammate.
“Team 8? I don’t know what happened to them,” said Morgan when asked about them. “They had an issue outside of Koyuk I’m hearing. I am kind of surprised. They’d had such a flawless race.”
“I feel pretty good,” said Morgan, while in Nome. “I’ve been in this position before though so I can’t celebrate too much. Last time we were first in Nome it didn’t work out for us. Ended up third that year, had some issues. We’re just kind of praying and hoping things will stay together for us.”
This time around, the work to be done on the sleds was minimal.
“All we’ve had to do is put oil and gas in them,” said Morgan.
“It’s nice to be back in my home town and eat mom’s home-cooked meals and see the nephews and everybody and see the whole community here,” said Morgan, who now lives in Anchorage. “There was a ton of people who showed up to greet us, so that was awesome.”
For being the first in to Nome, Team 10 won Donlin Gold’s Gold Rush Prize of $10,000 in gold coins.
Tre West of Nome and his partner had to scratch due to an accident. Just past Ophir A.J. Bartel of Team 7 “lawn darted” into the snow and went flying over the handlebar. His machine flipped, coming down on top of him. The result was a badly broken femur and an airplane ride to Anchorage, where the bone was pinned back together. His mom posted on Facebook “The machine is fine because A.J. broke its fall.” Tre West, continued on to Nome as an unofficial rider.
At the Wednesday night’s riders’ meeting head marshal Lee Davis reported to the riders that a village close to Nome had called to complain about riders going too fast through town. He reminded the riders to be respectful and to take it easy when travelling through populated areas. When this story as related to a group of NACTEC students the village kids laughed at the idea of telling the riders to slow down. “That wasn’t my village!” said one young man.
Also at the riders’ meeting Davis told the riders that the ice had gone out at Elim and there would be a detour.
There are dangerous animals in the wilds of Alaska and Team 23’s Paul Sindorf had an encounter with one of them. At 75 mph he hit a ptarmigan.
“We were between Poorman and Ruby, there’s a highway there, the old mine highway,” said Stan James, his teammate. “We were doing about 75 mph and I was just seeing snow dust and then suddenly all I saw was feathers. Then I saw the bird laying there. Paul pulled over, I got up next to him and first he asked if the bird was still stuck in his helmet. It hit so hard he couldn’t feel anything in his face. There was feathers jammed into his helmet. He took his mask off and it started puffing out.” According to James it kicked his partner into gear. “For some reason he went faster after that. I hit one maybe four or five miles afterwards. For some reason, I don’t know if it was the time of night or what it was but there was ptarmigan all over that trail.”
Jack Barber flew cover for his son Shane and teammate Todd Palin. “They’re my number one,” said Barber in reference to Team 11. He also had parts aboard his Navajo for a number of other riders. “I’ve got three or four totes in there that are maybe 100 lbs. A lot of that stuff is bulky more than it is heavy.”
For the first time in race history the race declared an unscheduled 24-hour layover. Open water around Unalakleet was the problem.
“There was a nasty storm that went through,” said Jim Wilke, Iron Dog President of the Board. “We could have theoretically started Tuesday A.M. Wind and warm water pushed the water up through the ice. The trail is negotiable in daylight but the later arriving riders would be heading out of Unalakleet in the dark and be vulnerable to getting very wet.“
The layover in Unalakleet generated mixed feelings among the riders. Most regarded the rest as a good thing but said it was hard because they wanted to be on the trail and racing.
“It definitely helped us rest-wise and body wise,” said Mike Morgan of Team 10, the eventual winners. “I was kind of sore. It definitely helped. I think our layover here (in Nome) is going to be shorter and going back toward Fairbanks is going to be a little shorter but you just take the cards you’re dealt. Mother Nature has dictated this race once again.”
“No. I’d much rather be in Nome than Unalakleet,” said Team 6’s Brad George. But what about the conditions out of Unalakleet? “Yeah, there was water everywhere. We did get down on the ice and we were water skipping the whole time. It was completely whiteout from White Mountain to Skookum. You couldn’t see a single thing. It was tripod to tripod.”
Steve Swenson of Team 48 is from Minnesota and refers to his “snowmobile” frequently. This Iron Dog was his first Alaska trip and for a guy from the Midwest the experience was a good one. Asked about the tough conditions out of Unalakleet he had much to say.
“It was great the first 20 or 25 miles. It was in and out of tundra and woods and it was beautiful. Down by the coast, up down, back and forth. Then we dropped down onto the bay and the vision was the worst I’ve experienced in 40 years of snowmobiling. It was like having a white five-gallon bucket over your head. So if it wasn’t for the excellent marking of the trail, literally going from stake to stake, looking down at your foot to see the previous ski track to make sure you were still on the trail. But it was unnerving. If I didn’t have a trail on my GPS I probably wouldn’t have been going out to sea, as I felt like I was doing. That’s how it looked on the GPS but I knew there was a turn up ahead so I felt confident that I was safe. It’s nerve wracking when you know the sea is in front of you and you can’t see the land in front of you and you’re not familiar with where you are to begin with. I knew I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore.”
What about the overflow?
“We were able to follow in other riders’ tracks,” he said. “We went through some pretty heavy slush but nothing that hindered our ability to get through it. There were some times when there was a really bad crosswind. Fog snow and rain were the big problem. We had water beading on our goggles constantly.”
Team 48, who selected “48” to reflect their lower 48 origin, brought up one practice sled to use for parts. Todd Palin made an additional practice sled available to them but Swenson and his partner Bob Menne didn’t get much Alaska riding in before the race.
Team 48, older than the other racers, appreciated the rest day in Unalakleet.
“We got to know some locals, walked around town, kind of recovered. Our old bones are twice as old as a lot of the competitors so the added rest was welcome.”
“We were anxious because we’d rather be running,” said Stan James of Team 23 about the 24-hour layover in Unalakleet. “And we were starting to realize they were going to shorten up our layovers. Now we were talking about everybody having to run 500 miles at a shot, which is not what we’re used to. I’ve never ran that far in one shot, so that’s probably what made me most nervous. We were relaxed with a nice couple at their home, nice beds. So that part was nice.”
“The weather all the way to Unalakleet was good,” said James. “Sitting in Unalakleet the weather looked pretty good,too. I was wanting to go. We would not have stopped there. Once we left Unalakleet, what’s the next one? Shaktoolik? Somewhere in there it started turning pretty bad. From Shaktoolik to Koyuk it just went to crap. It was raining and the wind was blowing so hard it was going in my goggles. So it was bubbling water in there. So I just stared at the back of my partner, at his orange vest and stayed right on his bumper.”
Was the overflow a problem?
“Most of the overflow I think the tide was coming in,” said James. “There was lots of ice on both sides so it wasn’t so unsafe.”
For most of the riders the real problem was the visibility with the flat light.
“I couldn’t see anything,” said James. “I kept look down at the thing and we were doing 50 mph and I said I don’t see how were doing that fast because I can’t see nothing.”
Once in Nome Team 23 had no serious mechanical issues to deal with.
“We’re done. It took is about six minutes 20 seconds,” said James. “New belts, new carbides, four different bolts and that was it.”
Team 8’s lead-losing mechanical problem was apparently the muffler.
“We’re not 100 percent sure but we think it started with the muffler, and maybe something coming apart in the muffler and possibly blocking off airflow exiting the muffler which was causing a bunch of back pressure and building up heat,” said Tyson Johnson. “Then it started throwing error codes. Eventually it got so hot it just started coming apart internally. We changed our fuel injectors and our exhaust pipe and the muffler. Then ran the maintenance things. Drive belts, tightened up some bolts, had about 14 minutes.”
Team 2, Micah Huss and Ryan Sottonsanti, had the most complicated mechanical issue to deal with in Nome. They’d lost a cylinder just outside of Unalakleet and had to rebuild the motor on one of the sleds. The repair cost them and hour and eight minutes of lost time.
“Yeah, we were hoping it would be a little bit quicker but I borrowed a cylinder from a friend here in town,” said Huss. “When we got it we installed it on the sled and we found out that two of the head bolts were stripped out so we used some longer bolts and that took about 30 minutes longer than we wanted to be.
“We changed a piston, the gaskets, a cylinder, and assembled it all back together.”
Asked if the repairs dealt with all the sled’s issues Huss answered that they’d know in the first couple of miles out of Nome. The motor held and Team 2 finished the race in sixth place overall.
“It was an excellent race,” said Iron Dog Board president Jim Wilke over the phone on Monday. Asked when the planning starts for next year’s race he replied “Today.”
“What you have to do is a real quick post mortem,” said Wilkje. “Call all of the key volunteers, the checkpoint officials, check with some of the racers at the front of the pack. What did we do right and more importantly what did we do wrong? You need to make those calls while it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind.”
The winners of the 2018 Iron Dog snow machine race are Mike Morgan of Nome and Chris Olds of Eagle River, Team 10. Nome summertime resident Micah Huss and Ryan Sottosanti of Wasilla, Team 2, finished in sixth place. In the Trail Class, Nome’s Michael Oliver and teammate Jerrod Vaughn of Anchorage completed the course.
1. Team 10, Mike Morgan and Chris Olds. 36:54:49. 2,031 miles at 55 mph average
2. Team 6, Brad George and Robby Schachle. 36:59:02
3. Team 16, Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad. 37:03:23
4. Team 8, Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson, 38:26:14
5. Team 14, Casey Boylan and Leslie Bryan, 39:12:31