A tough run along the coast for Iditarod mushers
By Megan Gannon
and Diana Haecker
The small field of Iditarod mushers starting from Willow last Sunday shrunk more when Iditarod rookie Jennifer LaBar scratched in Rainy Pass due to a badly broken finger and rookie Gregg Vitello withdrew in Iditarod.
But the most shocking scratch note came on March 10, as defending champion Brent Sass scratched at Eagle Island, while leading the race.
In a Facebook post, Sass told his fans, “Unfortunately I had been sick the entire race with a bad cold, chest pain ,body aches, sore throat all that progressively got worse as we traveled down the trail. I was giving everything I had to keep it positive and focus on my dogs so we could continue the race. Then 2 days ago some cracked teeth started giving me issues and over a 12 hour period turned into nearly unbearable pain. My body basically shutdown and for two runs I just hung on. Ultimately I couldn’t care for the dogs. Temps dropped to -30F and the combination of all that lead to some tough decisions.”
And with that, the front runner was out of the race.
From Eagle Island on Ryan Redington led the front pack to Kaltag, gambling on a monster run without break between Kaltag and Unalakleet, putting distance between him and the pursuing mushers from the Kuskokwim region, Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl, who rested Old Woman’s cabin. Redington then gambled some more and ran from Koyuk straight through Elim to White Mountain, running more than 13 hours.
Rockhard trails, polished by the region’s wind made for fast trails. By the time Monday rolled around, Redington, Kaiser and Diehl were on their way between Koyuk and Elim, under cloudy skies and some snow showers.
At Koyuk, five-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey was standing outside the checkpoint on Monday morning. He sat out the sled dog race this year, but having a dog team in the race, he still can’t seem to stay off the trail. Kelly Maixner is running his dog team. Seavey was on his way into Nome by snowmachine, and he said the trail across the sea ice from Shaktoolik was the best he’s ever seen it.
That was good news for the mushers, who crossed the notoriously challenging section of the Iditarod trail on Monday. This stretch across Norton Bay can be tough, with obstacles like glare ice, jumble ice and mushing across drifts into the howling wind. It’s where musher Nic Petit lost his way in a blizzard in 2018 and let his lead in the race slip away. The next year, his dogs stopped on the ice and refused to go further, forcing him to scratch. Not so this year. As he pulled into Shaktoolik, he could read a handwritten note from the trailbreakers posted inside the Shaktoolik checkpoint with the good news: “Very very little snow. They picked the smoothest path. Not too bumpy. No pressure ridges.” This 45-mile section is representative of the challenges mushers and their dog teams generally face along the last quarter of the trail. After steep climbs and drops in the Alaska Range, bare ground out of Rohn, icy luge-like passages out of Iditarod and the monotony of the big and mighty Yukon, the teams are spit out onto the Bering Sea at Unalakleet and are at the mercy of unforgiving and quickly changing weather up the coast all the way to Nome. Koyuk checker Jonathon Douglas said, “Yes, at this point, mushers are extremely tired, especially after crossing Norton Bay.” To not disturb sleeping mushers, the checkpoint is quietly bustling with volunteers putting out food, the Iditarod Insider Crew Greg Heister, Bruce Lee and their cameraman talking with Dallas Seavey, who’s fixing to leave, and three veterinarians checking the tracker for the arrival of next musher, Wade Marrs.
Mushers Hunter Keefe and Eddie Burke, Jr. rise from their bunks inside the checkpoint on Monday morning. Both were in friendly competition for the Rookie of the Year title. Their wind and sunburned faces still sleepy from the short nap, they readied themselves and their dog teams for the next run to Elim. Tasks were done slowly and deliberately: Watering and feeding dogs. Reorganizing and packing the sled. Putting booties on the dogs. Attaching the tug lines. And finally putting on the hat, gloves and parka and leaving the checkpoint. Burke was out first, his seven dogs trotting out of Koyuk.
Matt Failor, also at Koyuk, changed his runner plastic and winced at one move. His shoulder, he said, is giving him grief. However, Failor is good at masking his pain with a big smile. “Iditarod, you know, there are highs and lows, emotionally and physically,” Failor summed up the experience. But he said he was glad to be where he was and is looking forward to move further down the trail. He said so far, for him, the most difficult stretch of trail was between Iditarod to Shageluk. “The hills there were challenging, incredibly frozen hard and sloped into the trees so you’d go down the hill and slide into a tree and then you pinball back and forth.” His dog team is between four and eight-years old. He said his dogs are healthy and strong, eating well and to keep spirits up, he said, they have a habit of “singing” or howling together.
One complication in Koyuk was that the community’s water main broke, which caused the rerouting for the trail into the village and a water pumping station inside the checkpoint to dispense water to wash hands.
Burke and Keefer, the rookies vying for rookie of the year honors, were also in the top 10 and racing dogs from other mushers’ kennels. Burke has been racing Aaron Burmeister’s team and Keefe has been racing a team from Raymie Redington, the father of this year’s winner Ryan Redington. For Keefe, 23, and originally from Okemos, Michigan, running the Iditarod has been part of a childhood dream of mushing in Alaska.
“As soon as I graduated high school, I came up here and worked with Nic Petit and got started distance mushing and ended up at Raymie Redington’s,” Keefe said. “Now I’m behind an exceptional group of dogs. It’s a pretty special feeling when you get to hop on the runners of something that is one man’s life project.”
Keefe was feeling especially honored to be racing Redington family dogs this year. No one wanted to call the race yet, but by late Monday morning, Ryan Redington had pulled into the checkpoint at White Mountain for his mandatory eight-hour rest with a commanding four-hour lead over Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl. Redington was born into mushing, the son of Raymie Redington (ten-time Iditarod finisher), the brother to Iditarod mushers Robert and Ray, and nephew to the late Joee Redington and grandson of the late Iditarod founder Joe Redington, Sr. His victory on Tuesday marks the first win for the family in the race’s 51-year history, but their roots run deep in Alaska’s mushing history.
“He’s been a good mentor and it would mean a lot for the race,” Keefe said of Ryan. “It’s well deserved. Ryan definitely put in the time this year. He’s got lots of miles on his dogs. He’s definitely been really honest and putting in the work beforehand. It’s really, really cool to see him doing so well. At a lot of the checkpoints earlier in the race, we’d be close to each other, and he was always checking up on me and wondering how I was doing as well.”
He added that he thought Joe, Sr. would be smiling down on Ryan.
“It feels like [Joe] has been pretty happy the entire race with us, because for some reason, we’ve just had the most exceptional trail and conditions,” Keefe said. “It’s just felt like a magic carpet ride for me for sure. Ryan must be feeling the same way.”
Ryan might have been feeling that way, at least until his last stretch of the race into Nome. On Monday the weather was starting to turn. Snow was falling on Shaktoolik and Koyuk, which was the first mushers had seen snowflakes on the trail. The wind began to pick up in Shaktoolik as musher Nic Petit came in. Christian Turner, left but returned to the checkpoint not even an hour later.
At Shaktoolik were Jessie Royer, Kattijo Deeter, Aaron Peck, resting in closed off cubbies with bunkbeds, as the winds outside slowly began to move snow sideways.
While Nome saw sunny skies, cold temperatures and very little wind, the city calm betrayed what the conditions on the trail looked like. Once again, the famous coastal winds began to pick up. The National Weather Service issued a severe weather alert from Tuesday morning through Wednesday, warning that north winds up to 25 mph would be blowing along the Norton Sound Coast. The river valleys between Elim and Nome were expected to see gusts up to 45 mph. The weather station at Johnsons Camp in the Topkok Blowhole recorded about 30 mph winds with 35 mph gusts when Redington passed the blowhole. Winds there increased throughout the day and recorded 35 mph winds with 43 mph gusts in the afternoon.
After Redington arrived on Front Street in Nome, he told reporters that the trek from White Mountain to Nome was among his most challenging runs of the whole race.
“Once we got up by Topkok, man, it started getting windier,” Redington said. He said there were times in the blowhole where he could only see the two wheel dogs in front of the sled. His eyes were freezing, and he had to put his hands on them, one at a time, to try to keep them from freezing shut.
“It was it was marker to marker sometimes,” he said. “I’d have to stop, put the snow hook in and walk away from the team in every direction looking for a trail marker.”
Richie Diehl, the third-place finisher, said the same when he arrived at the burled arch in Nome on Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used my headlamp in the middle of the day to find markers,” Diehl said. “It was pretty wild.”
As of press time, six mushers arrived in Nome, with 24 still on the trail between Unalakleet and the finish line.