It’s March, so talk about the Sweet 16, the Elite 8 and the Final 4 is the buzz. Sure it’s usually about basketball be it high school or college but today it’s about Iditarod mushers. This afternoon, on day 9 of Iditarod, the Final 4 arrived in Unalakleet. They had camped at Old Woman Cabin and covered the last 38 miles to the coast behind Roger Lee.
Roger Lee arrived in Unalakleet at 11:30 with 10 dogs. He was preparing a kibble snack for his team at lunchtime. Lee is on a sabbatical from active duty with the Air Force. He mentioned his big leapfrog move. Since leaving Kaltag, Roger has moved up five places in the standings. He passed 4 teams ahead of him as they rested at the Old Woman Cabin. Roger said he tried to pass as quietly as possible but with forty-six dogs resting and ten dogs passing, one of those dogs is bound to bark a little.
Wearing a white wind anorak over her orange and blue insulated coat and pants, Cindy Abbott led the Old Woman Cabin group into Unalakleet. After Cindy snacked her dogs and bedded them down and while she was cooking their gourmet lunch, she was digging around in her sled bag. She looked up at me and said, “Life can be a puzzle.” She must have found what she was looking for or she abandoned the search to chat with Al Eischens who is taking a long rest here before heading up into the Blueberry Hills. Abbott says her race is going very well and her dogs, a team from Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Kennel, are doing fantastic. Last summer Abbott purchased a few dogs from Martin Buser. One of those dogs, a giant called Banana, is with Abbott.
Bearded Peter Reuter was ecstatic to be on the coast. He’s really enjoying the time on the trail with his dogs. Reuter who works for Seavey’s Ididaride is running a team of dogs from former Iditarod Champion Dean Osmar’s Cook Inlet Kennel. Osmar won the race in 1984. Prior to the race, Peter said, “I am running the Iditarod for the challenge and joy of running 1,000 miles with incredible dogs through amazing terrain!!!” Now at 718 miles into the race, Peter says the experience has far surpassed his expectations. Ski coach, Nancy Persons, was at the checkpoint to welcome Peter and have a small Paul Smith’s College Alumni Reunion.
Jimmy Lebling rolled into Unalakleet with 12 spirited dogs and a cast on his right wrist. He was the third musher of the Old Woman group to officially make the coast. Someplace between Nenana and Tanana, Lebling crashed his sled and found his right forearm compromised between the hard packed trail and sled stanchion. A horse vet casted his arm and he’s able to grip the driving bow and use his fingers. It’s slowed him down a little but it’s nothing to take him out of the race. Jimmy considers this a once in a lifetime opportunity so he’s not scratching with an injured arm. Jimmy recalls the year Rick Swenson finished the race with a broken collarbone after crashing at the icy bottom of the Happy River Steps. Jimmy says it’s time to start racing now to make it to Nome for the banquet.
In the Red Lantern position is Kotzebue resident Paul Hanson. Paul met many of the Kotzebue area mushers and their dogs when he worked for the Public Health Service. Part of his job was to travel to villages to provide rabies vaccinations. The Hansen family maintains a small kennel. Hansen has run the Nome to Council Race and the Kobuk 440 many times. He decided to take the next big step to Iditarod. The coast will feel like home for Hansen and his dogs. They have trained with the wind and weather that Mother Nature can dish out along the coast. it’s home to them. Musher and dogs are well prepared.
Al Eischens is still in the checkpoint giving his dogs a good long rest. His team is up off the straw and playing with each other. With the sun as warm as it is, Eischens is holding off to leave until later. All runs for awareness of Pediatric Disease. In a prior race, one of the children he represents asked him to take “Chicken” for a ride. Al took Chicken. Pretty soon, Chicken’s owner was asking if Chicken could go for the long ride to Nome. Chicken has a prominent place on Eischens’ sled bag.