Episode 1- Willow to Yentna
By Michael Rogers
The journey to Nome has started in what is turning out to be one of the snowiest starts since the 1990’s. The weather has dominated the headlines and Alaska, as usual, is a player. The weather in Willow this morning had a foot of fresh snow on the ground and the restart location was recommended for four-wheel drive only. Nic Petit made it to the start line after getting his trailer stuck in his driveway and more than a few teams had trouble maneuvering heavy cargo trailers around in the deep powder at the restart staging area. It created a bit of a chaotic scene but the racers were in line and started running at 2:00PM- one out of the gate every 2 minutes.
One surprise has 2-time Yukon Quest winner John Schandelmeier switch hitting with his wife Zoya DeNure after she spent the morning in the Anchorage emergency room. After a mad scramble for gear that fit him, the 67-year-old Schandelmeier headed for Nome at 3:20PM, his first 1000 miler since 2014. John is also technically a rookie since his single Iditarod start resulted in a scratch. He’s probably the most experienced rookie in race history. John won the Quest in 1992 and 1996 and attempted the Iditarod in 1993.
The snow has teams outfitting sleds with 2”-3” wide “ski floats” on top of the regular runners to aid in flotation in the deep powder they have encountered since they woke up this morning. At this writing, 41 of 57 mushers have checked in and out of Yentna at race mile 53 on their way to Skwentna at race mile 83.
If you compare speeds and times in transit, most teams are a full hour slower than in 2019 and times enroute are predominantly over 5 hours to Yentna. At this pace, most mushers will not make Skwentna before resting their dogs. Last year, most teams pulled the 83 miles to Skwentna in one long run, stopping only briefly to feed their dogs.
There is some discussion that this will be an atypical year for the Iditarod, at least since the 1980s when winters were harsher and more snow pack was common. The Iditarod has been a faster race for the last decade, and some people think it’s due to lower snow levels. As a result, many teams have been favoring smaller, faster dogs that eat less food and are geared for long distance endurance on hard packed trails. Normally, teams that run bigger dogs that are more adept at pulling in deep snow are at a disadvantage in the Iditarod, probably not the case this year.
This may be an instance where the Ford F250 outruns the Porsche 911.
It’s 1000 miles to Nome and this is the Last Great Race. The Iditarod is now part of the Qrill Pet Arctic World Series (QPAWS), a series of 4 great races around the world. The Beargrease in Minnesota, the Femund Race in Norway and the Volga Quest in Russia. The race series culminates in the Iditarod. It promises to be an exciting and surprising race.