By: Michael Rogers
The pulse of the Iditarod is picking up as the teams close in on the end of the Yukon portion of the course in Kaltag. Dallas Seavey once remarked several years ago, “The real race starts in Kaltag” and the front pack will be there by early evening.
Overnight, the teams took advantage of the drop in temperatures and moved quickly through to Eagle Island. There was some concern about the Eagle Island checkpoint. Eagle Island is the last uninhabited checkpoint and has to be built every year by race volunteers. It is basically a collection of wall tents and supplies that are flown in.
This year, the checkpoint went in, but without the drop bags of food due to the very real concern that wildlife would get into the bags before the mushers arrive. Foul weather had kept the planes from landing at the checkpoint over the last few days, but a break in the weather allowed a Ryanair flight to touchdown and unload the needed supplies. Last year, foul weather kept the checkpoint from being assembled at all and it resulted in a long, unsupported leg of the course, very similar to a run in the Yukon Quest. From Kaltag on, all checkpoints are at established villages with full time residents.
In the front pack, Joar Ulsom was first out of Grayling and into Eagle Island at 2:03am. He was joined by Pete Kaiser at 2:28a and Nic Petit at 2:45a. Petit left Eagle Island at 2:53a, after just 8 minutes in the checkpoint and mushed to Mile 610 and camped. Kaiser, Ulsom, Royer, and Failor are now pursuing him on his trail from Eagle Island and gaining. The remainder of the front pack: Seavey, Deihl, Zirkle, Redington, Holmes and Dobny are still in Eagle Island. Matt Hall’s arrival in Eagle Island is expected within the hour. In the front pack, Kaiser and Zirkle haven’t completed their Yukon 8, and for Kaiser the sole remaining option is Kaltag. While he is currently in 2nd position, he is eight hours behind Petit in rest. It remains to be seen whether Aliy will take her rest in Eagle or push on to Kaltag. This is the point in the race where the differences in run and rest strategies become very important.
Back from the middle pack, two long time veterans of the race are still making their way up the trail. Lance Mackey and Jeff King represent decades of mushing knowledge and a total of 8 wins between them. For the up and coming mushers who aren’t competitive in this year’s race, it would sure be quite the opportunity to shadow these two champions and try to learn as much as possible from people who literally defined the sport as we know it today.
The back eight positions are all out of Ophir and making their way across the desolate and rough trail to Iditarod. The trail report is that it’s low snow interspersed between tussocks. A “tussock” for those unacquainted, is a clump of tundra grass that forms a hump with a deep depression between them. If you think of navigating a field of bowling balls with a dogsled; that’d be about right on the money.
Some of the experienced mushers called it a “war zone” and even long time Iditarod veterans declared it some of the worst trail conditions they’ve ever encountered. My guess is some of these folks will arrive in Iditarod with something broken down- their sled, their body, or their spirit.