Episode 5- Cripple to Ruby, Covid-19 to Alaska, and Staying Home from Nome. By Michael Rogers
It was inevitable, Coronavirus aka COVID-19 finally made its appearance in the Great Land. The first case was an international traveler through Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport and is currently in an Anchorage hospital. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and while the Iditarod will carry on to conclusion, festivities in Nome will be significantly curtailed. The word from officials is to simply stay home from Nome unless you really have to be there in an official capacity. There are a significant number of those folks anyway and there’s no reason to increase the risk of spreading the virus to points on the map that are already working on the edge of medical capacity. Sensible advice in that regard.
From the trail, many teams are finishing their 24s and headed for Ruby. Nic Petit showed up this morning in Ophir and is currently bearing down on Cripple, just 40 miles behind race leader Jesse Royer.
The Flying Frenchman’s moving average last night was over 10 miles per hour and is reminiscent of his typical performance we’ve seen in the last two Iditarod races. Royer’s moving average is even faster.
Surprisingly, in this year’s race there are still a dozen teams or more that have a legitimate shot at winning this thing at the halfway point. Typically, the real contenders are down to just 4 or 5 as they come off 24s. While I’ve said for years that “the real race starts in Kaltag”, in 2020 I’m amending it to- “the real race started in Cripple”.
The current lead pack is Jessie Royer at mile 442, Aaron Burmeister at mile 440, Thomas Waerner at mile 430, Richie Diehl and Joar Ulsom at mile 425. Followed by Brent Sass, Michelle Phillips, Lance Mackey, Paige Drobny, and Mitch Seavey clicking off the last minutes of their 24 until midnight.
The chase pack of Ryan Reddington, Wade Marrs, Pete Kaiser, and Jessie Holmes are off their 24s and resting in Cripple. Later tonight will see a mass exodus from the checkpoint with a dozen well rested teams plying for Ruby. Your winner is most likely in this mix. Aily Zirkle and Kelly Maxiner still have hours to go on their 24 and will still be there in the morning.
Lance Mackey did a touching interview in Ophir yesterday while scattering some of his mother Kathy’s ashes. He’s taking her with him to Nome and spreading her ashes in the checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail. Dick Mackey, Lance’s father, was one of the founders of the race and won it in 1978.
His mother Kathy was seven months pregnant with Lance while placing 4th in the North American Championships in 1970. Kathy was a fixture in the mushing community for decades supporting a husband and two sons, all Iditarod Champions. Lance is running extremely well this year and, in his words, “this isn’t the snooze and booze cruise this year”. In typical Mackey style, he doesn’t much of a plan and is just winging it. Whatever that means, it’s working and he isn’t playing.
Alaska isn’t done playing either. As of this evening, the National Weather Service map is lit up like a kid’s coloring book with a multi hue of warnings for the entire northern half of the state.
Winter Storm Watches are in effect beginning tomorrow near Ruby down to Kaltag and a Winter Storm Watch is in effect from Unalakleet all the way through to Nome. The storm is expected to dump 6-12 inches of fresh snow in the Middle Yukon and Koyukuk Valleys. The storm will also pack winds to 40 miles per hour in some locations. Fresh snow, warm temperatures and high winds are some of the worst conditions to race in. Expect to see some of the rookies and puppy teams bow out once they hit the coast in the full brunt of a storm.
Iditarod veteran Jeremy Keller scratched today at the Nikolai checkpoint with 12 dogs in harness. It was reported earlier today that he had gotten off the trail and had to backtrack and other reports cited a desire to be with his family during the current coronavirus pandemic. Either way, we wish him well and a better run in 2021.
Unusually, he is mushing his way back to Willow, a journey of 4 or 5 days. Race officials are leaving his GPS tracker active to ensure his safety as he makes his way south.
I posted some photos from the ceremonial start.