By Bruce Lee
Iditarod 2013 started off like a shot from a cannon. Martin Buser shocked everyone by trying a completely new strategy of running all the way to Rohn (188 miles) with only minimal breaks. Martin’s move stirred a great deal of conversation among the other mushers out on the trail. Some thought he was completely crazy to try this unique strategy. Others wondered whether they were now so far behind him that they would never be able to catch up. When Martin pulled in to Rohn, it was obvious to everyone there that his strategy was thoughtfully laid out and the team had been trained to pull this off. His dogs arrived in Rohn with their tails wagging, fully animated and looked like they could roll on another 100 miles. Regardless of the final outcome, Martin introduced a lot of excitement into the Race.
During the year mushers train their dogs to run a specific type of race. While taking note of Martin’s move the field of competitive mushers stayed on their own schedules and stuck with their game plan. As the race progressed, Lance Mackey won the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award at Iditarod. Martin Buser’s team was the first to arrive at the checkpoint of Anvik and won the Millennium Alaskan Hotel First Musher to the Yukon Award. As the teams reached Yukon River, the complexity of the race changed.
It is often said that the Alaskan weather is the great equalizer during the Iditarod. Weather can assist some teams into more competitive positions and slow the progress of others. Normally on the Southern route the Yukon River is a place of cold temperatures and wind-drifted trails. What 2013 threw at the mushers was rain. Not just light sprinkles or sleet, but full-on pelting rain and temperatures in the 40’s. This caused the trail to rapidly deteriorate. Not only did the trail become soft and bottomless, but the mushers themselves were getting their arctic cold weather gear soaking wet. As a result a pack of highly competitive mushers began to pull to the front. By the time the teams left the Yukon River at Kaltag, there was a group of 8 mushers vying for a win.
From this point on it was hard for anyone on the trail to tell who really had the strongest team. At one point it would be Aliy Zirkle or Aaron Burnmeister. At the next checkpoint it might be Mitch Seavey or Jeff King. Even at the checkpoint of Koyuk (171 miles from Nome) the race officials and those of us along the trail couldn’t tell who was most likely to cross the finish line first. Jeff King blew through the checkpoint of Koyuk, seemingly taking control of the race at that point, while Mitch Seavey, Aliy Zirkle, and Ray Redington, Jr. chose to rest in the checkpoint. Jeff then stopped along the trail where both Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle passed him resting. At the last major checkpoint of White Mountain (77 miles from the finish line) it was obvious the battle had come down to two teams, Aliy Zirkle and Mitch Seavey. Both these teams seemed evenly matched and even at that point no one could guess the final outcome.
This was one of the most interesting and complex races any of us had ever witnessed. Mitch Seavey, of course, went on to win, but let us remember this is a sled dog race and his lead dog Tanner won the prestigious City of Nome Lolly Medley Golden Harness Award presented to the top lead dog in the race.
So where does this leave us when looking forward to Iditarod 2014? For one thing, dog care and keeping reserves of energy paid off in both strength and power at the end of the race. Every year is a new race. If your strategy is based on last year’s race you are already behind. This year’s Iditarod will follow the Northern route so the trail will be different, the weather will be different and, as was proven last year, there are still many strategies to be explored in running the Iditarod. In reality, it’s all about the dogs, the care and management of the team to match the conditions of the trail. Mushers need to assess when to push, when to rest, what to feed and how much, when to stay in a checkpoint and when to rest out on the trail. There are advantages to everything. Mushers are always weighing the choices, computing the stats, run/rest times, looking for details of what the trail is like ahead and what the weather is likely to be.
What would you see if you were out along the trail with them? One of the most obvious things is seeing how mushers work when they are completely exhausted. Lack of sleep clouds their thoughts and at points, even becomes painful, yet it is amazing how focused they stay on the care of their dogs, and how civil and polite they are with both fans along the trail and race officials. At times you can see their movement slow as they try to remain focused on their many tasks, fixing sleds, moving and opening food drop bags, looking for the items that they will need for the next miles of the trail and checking feet and putting booties on their dogs.
In the villages along the trail, the excitement grows as teams get closer to the checkpoint. Villagers are anxious to speculate on whose team looks the strongest, whose dogs are eating the best and just to greet mushers who pass through every year. There is the smell of straw from the dogs bedding in the air and steam rising from the cookers as mushers heat water to cook for their dogs. At night there is the dance of headlights as the veterinarians and mushers kneel on the straw, checking the condition and health of each individual dog.
Then as fast as the teams arrive they depart, swallowed up by the vastness and stillness of the Alaskan landscape, headed off to another checkpoint.
New stories will be written about this year’s race. Mushers and their dogs will meet conditions unique to this year’s race and in the end only one team will get to Nome first. Every year reminds us of what unique athletes these sled dogs are. Their ability, drive and instinctive desire to see what’s down the trail amazes us all. They are undoubtedly the best athletes in the world.
Whether you are a musher or a fan, watching these dogs perform is what makes the Iditarod so compelling.