I made it. Thursday afternoon I finished my third Iditarod in 10 days 22 hours 17 minutes and 41 seconds in 35th place.
If you watched this year’s race, you’ve heard what we went through. From the gorge and burn to the ice and wind on the coast, far more mushers were hurt and rescued than ever before, and the nearly unanimous consensus is that this was the toughest Iditarod ever. Even guys who were around in the “old days” are admitting this was tougher than the “old days.” This is bigger than the stories that have had years to grow. I’m going to try and recreate the race. This may get long. I apologize in advance.
I left Willow two weeks ago on a warm afternoon with sixteen excited dogs. You all know I was called in from Tampa to drive Matt Giblin’s team at the last minute, so my preparation was pathetically minimal at best. I’d driven a sled four times in three years, and hadn’t run the Iditarod in eight.
My team consisted of nine two-year-old ‘puppies’ I’d been training for two weeks, five dogs from Conway’s Junior Iditarod team I’d never run, a three year old leader named Chile that Ramey Smith had been borrowing for the winter, and Ditka, a nine-year-old leader who won with my dad last year, but was showing his age this year.
They were pulling a sled I’d never ridden full of my mandatory gear, minimal survival and repair gear, and tons of clothing, as I fully expected to freeze. At the last minute a race judge came running over and attached a GPS Spot Tracker to my sled, and told me it had an emergency SOS button I could push if I needed to be rescued. I (and many other mushers) told him I’d rather not know that. It’s harder to be tough if there’s an easy way out.
My plan was to go finish-line speed right from the start. Many mushers take off at a higher speed, and slow as the race progresses. We believe this takes a higher-than-necessary toll on the dogs, and like Dallas, want to start slow and finish strong. I felt my team could run 9 mph the whole way, and decided to make sure they didn’t exceed that at any point. I wasn’t supposed to be competitive; the goal was to get the puppies some experience so they can graduate and race with my dad next year. I just wanted to a) finish, b) get myself dogs and home safely and c) get to Nome in less than 11 days if possible.
I left the starting line wearing bib #62 out of 70 standing on the brakes. My little odometer GPS pegged at 8.9mph, I waved at the thousands of people tailgating off snow mobiles across the lakes and down the Yentna River. It’s a carnival like atmosphere, and easily the biggest party in Alaska. To use a Florida reference, it’s like the Florida-Georgia game only 50 degrees colder. Since I was going so slow, teams started passing me immediately, and by mile 15, I was in dead last. I had even been passed by two purebred Siberian teams.
I stopped to camp at Yentna Station a little after dark. I fed the dogs, bedded them down on straw, and was putting salve on their feet when I discovered my first problem. Ditka had a swollen wrist. He was my tough old lead dog, and I was counting on him to get me through the inevitable storms along the coast and into Nome. Several puppies were fair-weather leaders, but couldn’t be trusted in a storm. Chile was a good leader, but had never raced. That left Dodge, Chile’s brother who had finished in lead with Matt last year. Three leaders is barely enough to start a 1000 mile race, and I was down to two at the first checkpoint. What to do? I decided I needed Ditka. I rubbed and wrapped his wrist, and decided to carry him with me in the sled rather than drop him.
With the dogs cared for, I went inside the lodge for food and water. Most of the teams had gone through, so there were only the vets and officials, half a dozen mushers, and the Gabryszak family who live there. The checkpoint atmosphere is awesome. The lodge is tiny; two rooms and a kitchen. Twenty full-sized people and ten foster kids crammed on fifteen chairs and two couches. You can’t stay strangers long. The common goal and cramped quarters lend an instant sense community and camaraderie, with Mrs. Gabryszak mothering everyone and insisting you eat more.
Dan Gabryszak grabs his old guitar and takes up Ring of Fire in a deep bass. One of the techs picks up another and tries to keep up. I’m sitting on an easy chair with a six-year-old girl that reminds me of my daughter sitting on the arm showing me her Lego creation. Dan switched to ‘name the artist,’ which was a hit despite the answer always being Neil Diamond. It’s one of those nights you’ll never forget. I reluctantly left around midnight and headed for Skwentna with Ditka riding in the sled, and Dodge in lead.
Skwentna was slow in the middle of the night, and after caring for the dogs I went inside for some sleep. Another crowded tiny lodge was more on edge with Cindy Gallea having an incredibly rough night. She had food poisoning or the like, and there was no private place to endure the symptoms. She ended up scratching there, a first somber reminder that your race can be over in a hurry even if you do everything right.
I left for Finger Lake at daylight, and was having a great run until I noticed Dodge not running right. He was pulling, and easily keeping up at my slow speed, but wasn’t stretching out correctly, and I was nervous. A thorough exam at the checkpoint discovered both his shoulders were sore. He had run the Junior Iditarod with Conway, and all five of those dogs were acting like they hadn’t fully recovered. I hoped they just had sore muscles and would improve, but here I was barely over 100 miles in and only Chile the rookie for a sound lead dog. I wasn’t scared yet, but the stress level was increasing.
The run to Rainy Pass was the first sign of things to come. Until Rainy the trail was as good as it’s ever been, and I scooted down the infamous Steps with no issues. Shortly afterward though I was going through an especially twisty stretch of trail and came to a 90-degree corner on a downhill with a table sized tussock just before it. Normally it wouldn’t have been very difficult, but snowmobilers pulling trailers had made a less bumpy trail around the tussock on the inside of the corner. Chile took that trail, which would work on a snowmobile, but left me snaking a S curve over a huge pyramid which dumped me over and left me dragging by the handlebars into the inside of the 90. I looked ahead, and there was an eight inch tree ten feet in front of me, rapidly approaching, and no way to avoid it. I couldn’t stop, and my options were to hit it with my hands and lose the team, or hit it with my face and lose my teeth. I remember thinking neither option sounded good, and you had better do something fast. But I didn’t have time.
The next thing I remember I was upright, riding the brake down the hill. I still had my team and my teeth. I hadn’t hit the tree. I don’t know why. Talking to Newton Marshall afterward he related a similar story. He believed God had saved him every time, there was no other explanation. We concluded simply, “Trees moved.”
I was scheduled to leave Rainy Pass in the middle of the night, as I like to go down the Dalzell Gorge with less traffic. Oftentimes the other teams create as much of a hazard as the trail itself. As I was preparing to leave, the race judge came out to relay a message from Rohn. The trail was very “technical,” many mushers had crashed, and he recommended the remaining teams wait until daylight. I have run the Iditarod three times, and received similar warnings every year, but you could feel this one was different. Every musher there was nervous, and as the veteran of the group, most asked me what I was going to do. I said, “I’m going to Nome, and I have to check through Rohn, so I’m going”
I left at 4am. It’s a three hour climb through Rainy Pass, and then you fall for an hour down the Dalzell Gorge into Rohn. I reached the top at 7am, alone, with no other teams to worry about, and took my headlight off as I passed the summit marker. There was still plenty of snow as I stopped to snack my dogs, but I could feel the butterflies in my stomach, something I’m not used to.
I am 31 years old. I was born in May, and went for my first dog sled ride in November. I won my first race in January. I literally grew up on the back of a dog sled. As kids, we would intentionally look for hard things to do on a dog sled. We would take off tipped over on an icy trail dragging by a rope, and drag ourselves back to the sled and right ourselves. We let teams go and practiced grabbing the handlebar as it flew by. Four highly competitive brothers push each other. At one point, I believe I was one of the four best sled drivers alive. But I haven’t driven a sled in three years. Will it come back?
I’m not going to try to describe the Dalzell Gorge. I don’t think I can. Between Jeff King’s video, the Iditarod Insider and other accounts, I’m sure you have an idea. I will tell you it’s the first and only time in my life I have truly been scared on a dog team. Not scared I might crash. Scared I might die. I drove a sixteen dog team nine miles down something similar to the chute on Mount Marathon on ice. The worst part was that if I even tipped over, there was no way to right the sled. No way to stop. I would drag over rocks and ice until something broke. Probably me. Driving the sled wasn’t an option, you had to simply let it all go, admit it was beyond your control and hang on.
The Dalzell Gorge starts off slow, and gets progressively worse as you go. A quarter of the way down, I realized I was in for the hardest run of my life. At halfway down I was still upright but flat terrified and hanging on for dear life. By three-quarters I still hadn’t tipped. I knew it was going to get worse, but like Rocky taking the Russian’s worst punches, I realized I could beat this thing, and I decided then I was going to win (not the race, I wasn’t going to die).
The last quarter was the most insane trail you can imagine. Someone should have died. Ten teams scratched in Rohn. Very famous mushers had lost their dog teams four times. Every musher had a story. It was sled carnage at the bottom. Jason Mackey’s GPS said he’d reached a top speed of 31.6 mph. Dogs can’t run that fast in harness.
I hit the river at the bottom of the hill unscathed. I hadn’t so much as scraped a tree. I stopped to untangle Bumper and Raptor, and realized I was shaking. Trembling.
Imagine you’re driving on the freeway, you suddenly get slammed into, and your car goes spinning into oncoming traffic, and you see the semi coming. It’s going to hit you, and you’re going to die, there is nothing you can do. Somehow it swerves, and rushed by at 80 mph and rips off your mirror but misses you. When it all stops and you look around and see the kids are fine and you’re still alive, you’re overcome with emotion. That was the feeling. Or try reciting what you can remember of the 23rd Psalm over and over for an hour and meaning every word.
The checkers in Rohn told mushers came in and just stood there and trembled for twenty minutes. When I got to Rohn there was a photographer on the bare dirt runway taking pictures. I went past with my hands in the air. I had just won. I’d like a copy of that photo.
I decided not to stop in Rohn. The trail leaving there through the Farewell Burn was going to be just as bad, and I’d rather do it with a tired dog team. As I was grabbing food to camp on the trail, the checker told me the trail was going to be bad, there was no snow, blah, blah, blah. I told him that right then I would charge hell with a squirt gun and left town, and passed seventeen teams sitting there in various states of disrepair and a town that felt like a morgue.
The checker was right. The trail was actually worse. Not as scary because it wasn’t downhill, but much harder to drive over. We mushed over stumps, logs, rocky river crossings, and literal pits. I was terrified of busting an ankle. There were a thousand ninety degree corners on dirt and ice, and as you fishtailed around, the instinctive reaction is to put out your foot to post and keep from tipping. But there are 10,000 little stumps sticking up, and if you catch your foot on one, it’ll break your ankle. I tipped a few times on side hills, but never crashed.
I came upon another musher parked beside the trail. Clearly not on purpose. I stopped to talk to Gus Guenther, and he told me he’d broken his ankle. He had already pushed his SOS button. I made sure he had everything he needed and mushed on. A few miles further I came upon Scott Jansen similarly parked. He’d crashed and hit his head on a stump, and clearly had a concussion. There’s a video of Scott’s account on Iditarod Insider. Watch it. He pushed his button after continuing and then breaking his ankle and laying in icy water waiting to be rescued.
I wanted to camp about two hours past Rohn, but there was absolutely no snow. I needed snow to make water to feed my dogs. There are a couple creek crossings, but I’d been told neither was open. I went a little further than planned, and was rewarded with finding a creek 100 yards across and eight inches deep with overflow. I drove my team out into the middle of it and stopped. The dogs stood there for five minutes drinking water, and came out incredibly refreshed.
I camped just on the far side, hoping I was through the worst of the Burn. I have never been so tired in my life. I had driven fifty-two miles non-stop of the hardest trail I have ever seen. Every muscle ached, and my nerves were fried. My wrists hurt from slamming on the handlebar. My forearms were locked from hanging on and steering the sled. My feet hurt the worst, from standing on the track brake over such rough ground. My back still hasn’t recovered.
While stopped there, Kelly Maixner came by, and then several snowmobilers came flying by to rescue Jake Berkowitz. At this point I’d seen or heard of four teams running around me, and three of them had pushed their SOS buttons. Kelly did later. It was a more than a little scary. I couldn’t help but worry how Dad and Dallas had fared. I knew I had been incredibly lucky, and everyone else I’d seen had to be rescued. A truly crazy guy on a bike came by, and stopped to talk. He was hungry (he’s riding a bike to Nome) so I gave him a bag of Almond Joys and little chocolate cookies Matt had sent out, and sent him on his way.
When I left camp, I was through the worst, and had a clean run to Nikolai. I pulled in and was parked next to Martin Buser who was just leaving his 24 hour break. He was limping horribly on a sprained ankle. I hope you’ll hear about them all, but the mushers who didn’t stop have just as many sprains and bruises and crashes as those who did. Just because they kept going doesn’t mean they had it easy.
“Martin, I haven’t driven a sled in years. Am I out of practice, or was that really hard?”
“If you’re here, you’re a hell of a sled driver.”
I said “Have a good run,” as he was putting on a parka. “Like third place good.”
“You mean behind your dad and Dallas good? At least you’re honest.”
I considered taking my 24 there in Nikolai, but within five hours of arrival my dogs had eaten every bit of food Matt had sent out. A volunteer there told me they had seen my wife at the start right after I’d left, sobbing. She was worried about me to the point of tears before she knew the trail was bad. We weren’t allowed to call home, but there was a high schooler in the gym that was serving as a checkpoint on Facebook. I asked her to send a message to Safia to tell her I was alive and well. I asked around, and learned my Dad and Dallas were both OK, but my dad was limping pretty badly.
I mushed the fifty-four miles over to McGrath for my 24 hour break. The 24 is the time to make sure all the nicks and dings are healed, and your equipment is fixed. Unfortunately my team did not look great. Ditka’s wrist was still sore, I’d mostly carried him, but he’d had to run through the worst of it as it wasn’t safe to ride in the sled. Dodge’s shoulders were sore, and worse still, Chile refused to eat. She had been my happiest dog, and eaten everything in sight through Nikolai. She spent the whole 24 curled up in a ball and didn’t touch her food.
McGrath was busy, lots of teams on their 24, and it was the first time I got to talk with other teams in a while. Of course the gorge/burn was the main topic of discussion, and many war stories were shared. We concluded that every one of us would scratch before running that trail again, but that there was nothing they could have told us ahead of time that would have kept us from going. I wrote before the race about the optimistic mushers always willing to go. It was dead on.
Unfortunately the gorge/burn defined a lot of musher’s races. It was like a traumatic childhood experience. It was big and bad and unfair, and you have a good excuse to be messed up, but if you want to enjoy the rest of your life/Iditarod, you need to forget about it and move on. The good mushers did just that. As bad as it was, they forgot all about it by Nikolai, and turned their attention to the future. Many didn’t.
I switched sleds to another one we’d shipped out ahead of time as my original one had a broken bracket, washed my harnesses, dried my gear, gave the Almond Joys and chocolate from my McGrath bag to the biker when he came by, loaned my boots to Justin Savidis who had shredded his, borrowed some different dog food to try and get Chile to eat, sent an email to Takotna telling Dad and Dallas I was ok, and slept a lot.
There’s a video of me coming through Takotna the next day. I didn’t stop very long, but you can see Ditka riding in the sled. He was my travelling buddy. Chile was in lead through town, but as soon as I got out of sight, I picked her back up leaving two puppies, Wolverine and Chilkat in lead. I had 2-4 dogs riding in my sled with me from Nikolai to Unalakleet, trying to heal some injuries, and preserve my lead dogs. The trail was incredibly hard and fast, and I sure didn’t need the power, and it wasn’t hard to pull a heavy sled. It’s tough to fit that many dogs in a sled, but I sent everything I could possibly do without home, and put the mandatory gear in the back “sit down” part of the sled. That left the whole front compartment for dogs to ride.
I camped again in Ophir, which was probably my favorite checkpoint. There was only one parking spot left when I arrived, but I had to snake around one team, past the food pile, then park with the team in an L shape to fit in the small area. Multiple handlers were trying to work out a plan to get me there, but I just pulled the hooks and steered Wolverine and Chilkat through the maze, and parked perfectly unassisted. Several mushers looked up impressed with my leaders, and I admitted those two were babies who just became leaders. It was one of my prouder moments of the race.
My food drops were a bit of a challenge. Matt had planned them for his schedule, and shipped them out before I made it back to Alaska. My schedule was different, and the food I had didn’t match the food I needed. Worse, the human food he shipped out was not what I eat. Ophir is a cabin. No lodge, restaurant, etc. I dumped my food bag on the ground and discovered a diet protein shake, something that looked like meatballs, and a seal-a-mealed burrito that leaked and got all soggy when I tried to warm it in my cooker. I don’t eat diet anything, much less protein shakes, and found out the hard way the meatballs were actually fat balls meant for the dogs. The dogs loved them. I didn’t.
I was about to go ask the judge if I could scrounge in the garbage pile for some left behind musher food when the checker came out and asked if I wanted to join the checkpoint crew for dinner. I said yes. Dinner turned out to be steaks, shrimp, cake, and other healthy looking food I didn’t try. Ophir was definitely my favorite checkpoint.
The middle of the race is the defining moment for the dog team. Either they come together like a team, or they start to fall apart. Fortunately my team was really starting to come together. They had started to eat well (Chile was still riding and not eating) and the puppies were acting like pros. Except Otto. He was one of the puppies and he was my hardest working dog. The problem was he wasn’t very good at taking care of himself. He was getting skinny, not eating as well, and visibly more tired than the others. Working hard isn’t really a desirable trait. We want dogs that can run 1000 miles and think it’s fun. Otto was not having fun, so I decided to drop him in Ophir.
I camped at the Carlson Crossing cabin, left more Almond Joys for the biker, and woke up mushing to an incredible sunrise, and was on top of the world coming into Cripple. My brother Tyrell and his wife Tekla were checkers there, and it was good to talk to family. They gave me the Dad and Dallas update, they were way behind but looking good. They hadn’t suffered any damage in the rough trail, and their dogs were performing very well.
Tyrell’s main complaint was the Iditarod Insider and other media’s position that the race was over. They had decided that Martin or Aliy was going to win. Mitch was seven hours, and Dallas was eleven hours behind at that point, and the Insider crew had neglected to interview Mitch and Dallas, feeling they were out of the running. Tyrell understands our strategy, and knows the toll it takes on a team to be eleven hours ahead at that point. He bet the Insider camera crew $50 that either Dad or Dallas would win the race, and got them to interview Dallas. It may have looked crazy, but when he told me, he was proud of his odds on that one.
My dad always says your worst run comes right after your best run. It was very true. I had dropped Chile in Cripple, she wasn’t improving, and the vets thought she had a serious stomach bug. That left me with two leaders, one riding and the other not looking good. Worse, Cannuck starting favoring his shoulder an hour out of town, and was soon riding too. I carried him for a day, and then dropped him in Galena when he didn’t improve. At this point I was seriously concerned about making it to Nome. I was surviving, not racing. I knew I had leader issues, and could see I was going to end up with a small team. The hard trail was taking its toll. The young dogs just aren’t as tough as the older ones, and small dings can knock them out of the race. Even though the trail was good, it was hard to enjoy knowing the challenges I faced getting to Nome.
The Yukon river was relatively uneventful; I ended up in someone’s dog lot instead of the checkpoint in Ruby, carried five dogs on the icy trail to Galena where I overslept by two hours, and actually yelled in pain when I bent over and did something to my knee in Nulato. I don’t know what happened, but I’m still limping.
On the run to Kaltag, I reached a new low. I’d been running Dodge in lead with whoever else I could get to go up there. Dodge hadn’t pulled in 200 miles, was barely staying in front of the team, and I wasn’t sure he was going to go much further. Ditka was riding, and the plan was to run Dodge as long as possible while preserving Ditka, then drop Dodge and go with a hopefully healed Ditka. Halfway to Kaltag, my last other option decided he didn’t like leading anymore. I was getting pretty worried as I moved Bumper back to swing, and left Dodge in single lead. I had 350 miles to go.
Nervously I walked back to the sled, pulled the hooks, and held my breath. I really didn’t want to use Ditka already. I didn’t think he’d be able to run 350 miles, and I’d likely end up on the ice by Koyuk out of lead dogs thinking about pushing that button. “Alright Dodge.”
He took off like he was shot out of a canon. No limps, pulling hard, and going a mile an hour faster than we had been. He was a big, beautiful brown lead dog looking perfect. Where the heck did that come from? I eventually figured out that Dodge really didn’t like being in double lead. He liked Toby, his partner in Conway’s team, but he is a very submissive dog, and was never comfortable with the dogs I had put him with. Whatever sore muscles he’d had were a thing of the past, and once alone, he was happy as a clam. My lead dog worries were over. One of those things you deal with when you don’t get to train your dog team.
We camped in Kaltag, saw Dallas had still been ten hours behind there, rolled up to Old Woman and camped again, and were starting to catch some teams by Unalakleet. Life was looking up when I arrived in Unalakleet, and they told me there was a delivery inside.
After caring for my dogs, I went inside the checkpoint and found a freshly delivered pizza and a Coke with my name on it. The box said “For Danny Seavey – Thank you for helping Scott Jansen.” It was from a classroom in Virginia. I’m not sure what I did for Scott other than ask him some crazy questions, but I’ll take a pizza any day. My other option was another diet protein shake. I said then it felt like Hunger Games, with sponsors sending things you need. That name stuck when we started running up the coast, for other reasons.
While devouring my pizza, Jeff King left White Mountain. Up until then, I really hadn’t been able to keep up with the competitive race. I’d done a lot of camping outside checkpoints, and felt incredibly out of the loop. On a big screen on the checkpoint wall, we watched Jeff, then Aliy, then Dallas’s little GPS trackers moving through Topcock. It was clear the race was as good as over, no one has ever lost the lead from White Mountain to the finish, and Jeff had a huge lead and the fastest team. The larger-than-usual gaps between Aliy, Dallas and Dad meant they were almost certainly safe in their positions, and it looked like Tyrell was out his $50. I commented on how it was too bad we weren’t going to have another exciting finish.
Christian Turner, Robert Buntzen and I were going to leave Unalakleet together. I considered staying to watch the finish, but decided to keep moving. When our dogs were about half bootied, the race judge came out again, this time to tell us there was a serious storm warning for the whole coast that night, and that the markers on the trail to Shaktoolik had been knocked down. I went back inside, looked at the available forecasts, saw that the teams who had left Unalakleet already were moving well, and decided to go anyway. I told the judge I was dry, sane, had 20lbs. of food in my sled, and my dogs were healthy and eating well, don’t worry about me. Christian and Bob decided to stay.
At 10:17pm I left town wearing every shred of clothing I had, with my dogs wearing their coats. We made it out of town, through the oft-confusing lagoons and road crossings, and into the Blueberry Hills with no problems. There were not many of the reflective trail markers. Most had been knocked down by the wind or travelers, but I’m relatively familiar with that stretch of trail, and while on edge, was feeling fine.
Christian and Bob are smarter than I. About halfway to Shak things got interesting. We came to a glare ice creek that you were supposed to follow for half a mile then cross, but it was to icy to navigate. After ten minutes wrapped around driftwood and willows, I finally found my way back to the markers, but was so twisted around I didn’t know which way to go on the trail. Fortunately I guessed correctly, figured I’d dodged a bullet and kept moving.
We ended up on what I think was a lake in the hills. The markers clearly went into the middle of the lake, but then disappeared. It was glare ice. The dogs and I could stand, but barely. The wind was picking up, still not bad, but combined with the snow now falling, made for very poor visibility. I managed to set my snow hook anchor in the ice, and walked to the front of the team. I looked in every direction, trying to find a reflector with my headlight. Nothing. I walked in front of the team, looking for snowmobile ski marks in the ice. Nothing. I walked a little further from the team, figuring I would have to pick up something, the trail had to go somewhere.
I glanced backwards just in time to see my lead dogs start to move. They knew then I was lost, and decided to take matters into their own hands. They were trying to turn the team, but they were going away from me, and if they swung even a few degrees the snow hook would pop out of the ice, and they would be gone. I always stay in front of the team with the snow hook set so I can catch the sled as it goes by if needed. That only works if they come your way.
I started towards the sled, but didn’t want to run and startle them. Too late. They were already turning a full 180 degrees away from me. The hook popped loose. I was running then, incredibly thankful for the Seward screws in my soles, and dove at the last moment. If I’d have been carrying a football it would have been the pylon dive. I caught the towline right in front of the sled with both hands. I had caught the team, but had come down very hard on both elbows and knees on glare ice. It hurt.
By the time I got the dogs stopped and secured again, I had no idea where to go. I was pretty sure which general direction I had come from, but could no longer see markers in any direction. Time to get concerned. Then I remembered the headlights Exxon Mobile had given us at the drivers meeting. They were the latest, greatest lights, but they only lasted about three hours on set of batteries, so we didn’t like to use them full time. I had my two main headlights, but had thrown the new one in my emergency bag just in case. We were in that case. I dug it out of my sled, grateful my handler Dale had taken the batteries out of his own headlight at the starting line and put them in there for me, and switched it on. The dang thing blinded me. I shone it around the lake and got a glimpse of a reflector, half a mile away. The dogs saw it too, and we were back in business. I put the light on, figuring I’d need it, and mushed through the hills saying a little thank you every time I saw a marker.
Shaktoolik is fourteen miles out a spit in the ocean. The trail comes down off the hills, and runs on the shore side of the spit, which also serves as a breakwater and a road. Almost every musher who has run the Iditarod has an “I got stuck in a storm on the Shaktoolik spit” story. My dad spent a day and a half stuck there with Joe Redington his rookie year. I hadn’t gotten stuck there yet.
I hit the first lagoon with both Ditka and Dodge in lead. This was why I had carried Ditka. We made it about a team length onto the half-mile, glare-ice lagoon before the wind gusts picked us up, and literally spun us around 360 and into the brush. I tried to stay calm as I went up to the dogs, and removed all their booties. They can get better traction with their toenails out, and I also unhooked all the tug lines, hoping to give the leaders a higher percentage of the power.
It helped, but not enough. We made it a hundred yards before the same thing happened again, this time blowing us clear onto the breakwater. I seemed to have better traction than the dogs, so I got out a lead rope, walked to the leaders, clipped in, and became my own lead dog. I walked across the lagoon, dogs strung out at a forty-five degree angle behind me as the wind pushed the sled sideways.
Back on snow, we proceeded as usual but the wind was getting serious. I later learned it was holding at 45mph, and gusting to 51, coming from three o’clock. It was also snowing seriously now, and the snowflakes were like shotgun pellets hitting my face.
I had carried Ditka some 400 miles by that point. He earned back every bit of that and more that night. He put his head down and dragged us for mile after mile through that wind, lagoon after lagoon. We’d mush out onto the glare ice, then get blown sideways onto the shore, dogs and sled just sliding. The snow was piling up on shore, and once we hit, Ditka would shake off, and run around the edge on the snow and back to the trail. Fifty times in a row.
In fourteen miles, I didn’t see a single erect marker. I know from experience roughly where to go, and knowing it’s a bad stretch, I’ve paid attention in the past. We ran over a few downed markers, which were nice reassurance, but no indication of where to go next. About halfway out, I passed two teams struggling in the wind. They were still moving, but they didn’t have Ditka. I stopped a few times and fed my dogs, hoping the other teams would follow, and eventually they did. Of course you want to help another team in that situation, but you also have to be very careful. If you stop, pretty soon your dogs think you’re camping, and don’t want to go any more. That’s how you end up hitting the button.
Eventually we made our way to the road into town, and I left the two teams thinking they’d be safe from there. We were four miles from town, and I couldn’t get there soon enough. I almost made town. I was already seeing buildings when the wind found another gear. My poor dogs didn’t have a chance; there simply wasn’t enough traction to stand up to the wind. Once again I was walking, only this time I knew we couldn’t go for long. At one point it was blowing so hard that the dogs and I together couldn’t pull the nearly empty sled into the wind.
Had it been a mile further we’d have had to camp, and I’d have my own “I got stuck in Shak” story. But we made it. I actually rode the last few yards to the checkpoint in the worst wind I’ve ever been in. Shaktoolik was packed, with a dozen teams there already. A frozen checker found me a hole behind a snow berm that was mostly out of the wind, and I put down a bale of straw and piled my whole team in a heap the size of a small kitchen table, lines, booties and all. I unhitched the sled, pulled it upwind, and tipped it over for an additional windbreak, and went inside. My dogs had eaten twice in the last hour, and I needed to get inside.
As I was walking in, the judge told me “Congratulations, your brother just won the Iditarod!” I had completely forgotten they were finishing. I didn’t believe him at first. As I struggled to get out of my gear -I was wearing everything, and then had the wind anorak over the top. I was warm, but literally wringing wet with sweat – he told me that the front guys went through the same storm I just had, and Jeff had scratched, and Aliy had stopped in Safety. Dallas hadn’t gotten the memo, and mushed through to win, and didn’t even know it. They had all watched it on TV there. I had missed the most exciting race finish in history, walking through a storm with Ditka.
Shaktoolik checkpoint is basically a singlewide trailer. Twelve mushers and about as many volunteers spent the night, with our gear hanging and laying out to dry everywhere. It made Yentna feel spacious. I found a place on the floor to lay my sleeping bag that only was touching three other people if I bent my legs, and crashed. I woke up two hours later to the teams I had passed arriving. They had walked the last four miles into town, and took a total of four hours longer to do the run from Unalakleet than I had. I love Ditka.
Mike Ellis had arrived just before me, and he had a big patch over his eye. He’d been blown off the road, and frostbit his eye. Another casualty. Hunger Games came to mind again.
I went to the table, where Allen Moore was sitting. He’s Aliy Zirkle’s husband. Aliy has now been second to Dallas or my dad three years running. What do you say? I went with, “I’m not sure whether to say congratulations or I’m sorry.” Second is an awesome finish, but this one is going to be a hard pill to swallow, knowing she could have won it.
Competition is an interesting thing out there. Whoever wins, it’s someone you consider a friend. We all know each other well, and want to see each other do well, but it is a race, and your goal is to win. Aliy is clearly the crowd favorite. Most of the spectators and half the mushers want her to win, it’s hard not to. She’s the nicest, most deserving lady you’ll ever meet, and the underdog. I know people I’m related to, and many who work for us who were hoping she’d win. Jeff is well liked, but he’s already won four times. Dallas has a level of begrudging respect, in the how-the-heck-does-that-kid-do-it sort of way. He’s frustrating because they know they had a better dog team, but somehow he wins again.
After waiting out the storm together in Shaktoolik, we got ready to head for Koyuk. It was still blowing 30mph, but it was a head wind, and daylight. We heard the markers would be sketchy, and everyone was going at once, so it’s a big caravan. I’d rather travel alone, and let the first teams go by an hour. It turned out to be a good move. The first four all missed the markers within sight of town, and mushed twenty minutes out of the way. The trail had been glare ice the day before, but now was crisscrossed with snow drifts. The sled would skate across the icy stretch, and almost stop when it hit the snow. Twelve mushers had twelve different runner plastics on, and none of them would slide, and we quickly dubbed it the sand-snow.
The run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk is just scary. You’re crossing fifty miles of sea ice, out of sight of land, and it has an unmistakably eerie feel. Usually the trail is straight as an arrow, but this year the jumble ice forced the trail to swerve around the biggest piles. Several places we’d run out of markers, and eventually find them again at a ninety degree angle to our current direction of travel. Another time we crossed a patch of green slushy water. The last thing you want to see out there is green water. Ditka doesn’t like glare ice or snow drifts, and tried to swerve around them all. I must have yelled “gee” or “haw” a thousand times across that ice, trying to keep him on the markers. The last mile into town was a ridiculously slick lagoon, and it took twenty minutes of spinning circles on ice just to get to the checkpoint building.
I was relieved to reach Koyuk just before dark. I actually had the fastest time of the whole group I had travelled with, but the last 120 miles had been nothing but wind, drifts, ice, and constant steering. I felt I had taken a lot out of the team, and decided to take a long break there. While caring for the dogs, I realized I had nearly ripped the sole off my boot. Fortunately I carry a needle in a dental floss case, and spent an hour sewing the sole back on.
Looking at the standings, I could tell I was moving up. I hadn’t passed anyone, but so many teams were scratching in front of me I was looking good. It’s unnerving when teams are pushing the SOS button on the trail you’re about to run, you never know when you may be the next one. The Anchorage Daily News publishes a centerfold with all the mushers’ photos before the race. It’s hanging on the wall in every checkpoint, and someone started putting an “X” across the scratched mushers. There were a lot of Xs. Hunger Games.
I left Koyuk shortly before dawn. Much to my surprise, the trail was perfect. There was snow, markers, no wind, and the dogs loved it. The big rest had worked wonders, and every dog was running perfectly. A sense of relief came over me. For the first time in the race, I knew I was going to make it. I still had both Dodge and Ditka, we only had 160 miles to go, and were moving well. About that time the sun came up, with little rainbows on either side. A sundog. It was the first run since Yentna that I was able to truly enjoy, and not worry about making it, or keeping the team together. The last several miles into Elim are uphill on a road, and I was still standing on the brakes to hold 8.9mph. My strategy had worked, we were going to be fine, just one more day to go.
I didn’t stay very long in Elim, just long enough to feed the dogs and grab a bite to eat. Once again I was debating between a soggy burrito and a diet protein shake when a group of tourists in the checkpoint took pity on me and opened up a smorgasbord of cheese, smoked salmon, and best of all, fruit. I ate two oranges and an apple, and fruit has never tasted so good. By now, my back and knees where the biggest points of contention, and I was regularly stretching to try and keep moving.
I asked for a forecast for Nome the next day, and was told it was for flat calm, and 0 degrees. We were finally catching a break, and looking at a nice run to the finish. A little voice in the back of my head said don’t believe it, there is no way this race is going to give up so easily. Well refreshed and back feeling slightly better, I bootied up and headed for White Mountain. As I was mushing back past the checkpoint building, the lady came running outside and told me they just issued a storm warning for Nome tomorrow. There it was.
We had a long but impressively strong run over little McKinley, across Golovin Bay, and up the river to White Mountain. My dogs ran thirteen hours with only a 2:40 break in the middle, but the puppies handled it like champs. Mission accomplished. The little runts that had started this Iditarod were now professional race dogs. They knew how to handle wind, ice, long runs, and take care of themselves by eating and sleeping in checkpoints. Watch out for them next year.
Tyrell and Tekla were in White Mountain again. It’s very nice to see someone you know on the trail, a sense of security. There is a mandatory eight hour break there, and it was needed. The trail report leaving there was not good, more wind, ice, driftwood and no snow. The talk of the town was the rescue of Hugh Neff, another face with an X who used to be a friend racing with us.
Karin Hendrickson left White Mountain thirty-six minutes before me. I love having a team in front of me on that run; it gives you someone to race. I had never spoken to Karin before White Mountain, and decided I really liked her then, but all of a sudden the race was between her and I for 35th place. I was going to catch that team.
It’s a long ways from White Mountain to Nome. They say seventy-seven miles. My dad beat Aliy by taking it easy leaving White Mountain last year. I took off and made the dogs run 7 mph for two miles. Then 8 mph for two miles, then finally up to our standard 8.9. I took my Wiggy’s mukluks off, and ran over the Topcock hills in my tennis shoes. We were flying. I could see Karin’s headlight in front of me. I had almost caught her coming down the last hill onto the beach.
Remember that winter storm I’d been warned about? It was hanging out there on the beach, in what’s known as the blowhole. We had no sooner hit the bottom of the hill than the wind sent us flying across more glare ice, and we only stopped when the sled slammed into a piece of driftwood bigger than us. Racing was over, back in survival mode. For twenty miles, we struggled with Ditka saving our bacon again. I walked in front of the team at times. I searched for markers. We ended up clear out on the beach, instead of the shore where the trail was. The wind was howling, the markers non-existent, but the dogs somehow kept going. Every once in a while we’d run over a down marker, and feel a sense of relief. I forgot all about Karin, other than being relieved she was still in front of me, and therefore probably doing ok.
My dad is covered in bruises. When he takes his shirt off he has more black and blue skin than normal colored. His face looks like he was in the Rocky fight. He says he was attacked by Sasquatch. In this same area he was blown sideways across the trail, and actually knocked one of the tripod markers over with his face. When he looked back he saw a three-legged monster with a reflector “eye.” Sasquatch. I ran into my share of Sasquatches. But I was still moving.
I had decided I was going to camp in the tiny checkpoint of Safety if I ever made it there when the storm finally broke. It broke almost in an instant. One minute we were in survival mode, and the next it was barely breezy, warm, and the trail was a plowed road a blind dog could follow. We were back up to our standard 8.9mph and rolling down the road into Safety.
The clipboard at Safety said Karin was only twenty minutes in front of me. Back in race mode. Twenty two miles to go. I stopped and snacked my dogs, put Ditka back in the team and Dodge in single lead. That was speed mode. I took the dog’s coats off, and my boots. Time to roll. I dug the ski pole out of my sled, and became my own best dog again.
I’m not going to go into a dramatic chase and pass story for 35th place. But I did catch Karin after I ran up Cape Nome in my tennis shoes. She was the first and only team I passed in the whole race while it was moving. I’d passed teams camped, and the two stuck in the storm, but I’d moved up from dead last on the Yentna river to 35th and only passed one team.
I stopped on the ice outside Nome when I came to an open puddle. I let the dogs drink, catch their breath, and just enjoyed it for a minute. We would finish in ten minutes, and it would all be over. I went up and petted Ditka, Dodge, Bumper, Chilkat, Mucho, Heinz, Czech, and Rudder. We had been through by far the toughest experience of our lives together, and you feel a pretty close bond. We’d only met three weeks ago, but we were best friends now. Unlike previous years, I was happy to finish. This was one race I’d be glad to be done with, but I couldn’t have been prouder of my puppies.
The siren went off announcing our arrival, and we rolled up onto Front Street to a surprisingly big crowd. We actually passed the cop car escort, past the Board of Trade, into the chute and under the arch. Most of my family was there, brothers, parents, grandparents, etc. But no wife and kids. They hadn’t had time/money to get to Nome and find housing on such short notice. I now regret that decision. I really just wanted to call my wife. As soon as they’d checked me in, I asked for a cell phone. Three phones later we realized the cell towers were down. Eventually I made it to the pizza joint where the nice waitress let me use their phone to call home. It was good to finally talk to Safia. When you go through something like that, you want to tell the people you love.
It’s over now. Somehow like a dream, you’re not really sure if it ever happened. I had at least five runs that would have been life-changing experiences had it not been for the fact I’d already moved on to the next one before the last one had time to sink in. Eventually it just becomes a blur, and you forget it all. I’m glad I’m writing this before it’s completely gone.
Much to my wife’s relief, I have no intention of doing this again anytime soon. I think it’s out of my system. They say that those who can’t do teach. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s my role. My dad and brothers race, I do tours and tell people about it. I think I just settled that little debate in my mind. Fans always tell us “you’re a winner just for finishing.” It sounds nice, but I never really bought into that mentality. This year it was true. Every team who made it here, and several who didn’t, truly just won. We made it. There’s talk of gold-plating the 2014 finishers belt buckles. Jeff King stopped by our table in the pizza joint. After the formalities and a moment of silence, someone said, “There are no words.” Jeff responded, “And so we move on,” and left.
It’s time to get ready for the banquet. I’m going to have to post this unedited. I think there’s a live feed. The stories should be incredible. There are teams here that could have justified scratching five times over. We’ll try to describe it, but there is no way to explain this race and do it justice. We’ll probably just thank our sponsors and leave.
I’ll be writing again next year, safely at home with my wife and kids. When they get to Nome, I’ll remind them it wasn’t as hard as 2014.
I hope you’ll be reading.