The Bering Coast
By: Michael Rogers
This morning, race leader Nic Petit is checking in at Unalakleet and the Bering Sea. Unalakleet is the largest town on the Iditarod trail between the start and finish lines and is an annual stop for mushers on both northern and southern routes. The first out of Kaltag, Petit has broken trail through blizzard conditions all night and apparently got disoriented and off his pace. The trail to Unalakleet had to be rerouted in a couple of places due to open water in several creek crossings. Joar Ulsom left Kaltag 2 hours after Petit and has closed the distance slightly. For being the first into “Unk”, Petit has won $1500 in Bering Sea gold and an ivory sculpture in the Gold Coast Award.
Jessie Royer in turn is chasing Joar. She rested in Kaltag for four and a half hours and is currently just behind Ulsom. Pete Kaiser left Kaltag just before 1:00a after completing his Yukon 8. Kaiser’s pace into Kaltag was the fastest of anyone at 6.63mph and after a solid eight hours of rest, his team should be coming up from behind fast. The first into Kaltag, he is 22 miles from the leader but hours ahead in rest. Mitch Seavey is 18 miles behind Kaiser after 5 hours in Kaltag. A chase pack has formed just outside of Kaltag by the remaining teams in the front pack by Hall, Holmes, Zirkle, Failor and Drobny. Zirkle is fresh off her Yukon 8 and Holmes has been running an excellent team of dogs and both are looking to close the distance on the leaders.
There are limited places to stop and rest on the run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. The terrain is mostly open tundra with few bands of trees to break up the incessant wind. The first rest stop is a cabin on Tripod Flats located 35 miles from Kaltag and the second is Old Woman Cabin located 50 miles from Kaltag in the shadow of the mountain by the same name. There is a band of trees located 20 miles from Unalakleet that provides a quiet resting place for dogs and is a favored stop to rest teams in lieu of the noisy, windy bustle of Unk. Mushing legend has that Old Woman Cabin is haunted and mushers must leave some trinket or food behind or risk being followed by the old woman’s ghost for the rest of their race. Whether that’s true or not can be the subject of debate, but there are plenty of knickknacks hanging around the cabin from folks who aren’t taking chances.
The middle pack is working its way up the Yukon in the emerging weather. It will be interesting once they start checking into Kaltag to see what their pace times are since they’ve been running into a headwind all night. The trail from Grayling to Eagle Island was very good, but the trail from Eagle Island to Kaltag was much worse than anticipated with soft snow and lots of overflow.
Expect weather to be a factor in the rest of the race. Not only with fresh snow and wind on the Yukon, but the high winds on the coast have created near blizzard conditions and blowing snow. Most years the race course goes across the sea ice from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, but this year a combination of warmer than normal temperatures and high winds has broken up the ice and the course will go around the coastline. The coastline adds about 12 miles to the route. Additionally, the coastline has more hazards from creek crossings to tussocks than a fast run across flat sea ice.
From the back of the back, current Red Lantern musher Cindy Abbott has scratched in Iditarod checkpoint. 2019 was her fifth trip up the Iditarod trail and Abbott won the Red Lantern (last finisher) in both 2015 and 2017.