The Race Starts Here
By: Michael Rogers
The final push up the Yukon is now over for about half the front pack with the rest expected by midnight. Pete Kaiser was first into Kaltag at 4:48p, netting himself the Fish First Award from Bristol Bay Native Corporation. The prize is a certificate for 25 pounds of prized salmon, a check for $2000 and artwork by local Native artist Apayo Moore. Coming in minutes behind Kaiser is Nic Petit at 4:51p. Kaiser hasn’t taken his Yukon 8 and now will remain in Kaltag until 2:48a tomorrow before setting off for the coast. Petit can leave whenever he’d like, but anticipate 4-5 hours before he pulls the hook and takes to the trail.
Third in is Joar Ulsom at 6:53p and fourth is Jessie Royer a few minutes behind him. Either can leave at the time of their choosing. The trail from Eagle Island was considerably rougher than anticipated. Warm weather and heavy snow over the last two days resulted in softer trail and a substantial amount of overflow on the ice. Heavy, wet snow pushing down on the river ice causes water to breach and lie on the ice surface. Warm temperatures also cause tributary creeks to empty onto the ice surface creating a heavy slush and liquid water. The result was a run by Kaiser in 9 hours that generally takes 7 hours. Joar and Royer have pulled these runs in one shot and both stopped to rest midway.
Still on the trail to Kaltag is Mitch Seavey roughly 15 miles out, Aliy Zirkle 20 miles out and pursued neck and neck by Jesse Holmes who has moved from the “back of the front” to the “middle of the front” in a play for position. He’s got the fastest team on the trail currently and is gaining ground on the leaders to make a move. Zirkle left Eagle Island after 4 hours and will be stuck in Kaltag for a full 8. Bringing up the last of the front are Failor, Redington, Diehl, Hall and Drobny, all of whom should trickle into Kaltag by midnight.
Kaltag is where the Iditarod turns into a race. Petit is switching sleds for a smaller and lighter version since the runs are shorter between checkpoints and he can make do with fewer supplies. I would expect other competitors to either switch sleds or drop the trailing sleds for the remaining 350 miles. While the weather has been warm and relatively good until now, a significant storm is brewing in the Norton Sound and is moving into the area overnight with more snow, colder temps and 30-40 mph winds. While the wind will be a factor for the pack going along the coast, it may play a bigger role for the remaining mushers still running up the Yukon and driving headlong into it.
As speculated earlier today, the trail to Iditarod has taken out two more mushers from competition. Marcelle Fressineau and Emily Maxwell both scratched in Iditarod checkpoint after being battered by tussocks. It was Fressineau’s fourth and to be her last Iditarod and Maxwell’s second attempt. The rough trail is also impacting races for mushers still on the course; reports that Wade Marrs has a battered runner from the trail to Iditarod have surfaced. He is currently 22nd and well off his 2015, 2016, 2017 “Top Ten” pace.
Tonight and tomorrow will see the front pack leave the Yukon for Unalakleet and the trail to “Unk” has deep snow and open water on many of its creeks and small rivers which should slow the front runners down. The wind picking up and blowing downstream into the faces of teams still striving for Kaltag will likely slow them down more.
Expect to see mushers pushing their teams, making more aggressive moves and resting less…the race to the Burled Arch starts now.