March 19, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Final Teams Departing McGrath

It’s another partly cloudy day with snow showers in McGrath. Population of the checkpoint is down to one. Tom Schonberger and his handsome Siberians will depart at 10:47. Tara Cicatello departed earlier this morning at 08:40. Both are rookies seeing the Iditarod trail for the first time.

Tara and Tom spent time during their long lay-over caring for their dogs, walking their dogs, feeding their dogs and massaging their dogs. They also caught some pillow time and enjoyed food provided by the community at the checkpoint. Seems that whenever meal-time rolled around, delicious entrees arrived, no the least of which was baked salmon.

Half-past twelve this morning, Jason Stewart guided his team down the steep bank of the Kuskokwim River and headed to Takotna. Jason and his wife, Melissa Owens of Nome, own and operate Owl Creek Kennel. While this is Jason’s rookie run to Nome, his wife is an Iditarod Veteran. Melissa earned her finisher’s belt buckle in 2008. She scratched from the race in ’09 and ’11. She finished in ‘16 and ’17. Having grown up in Nome, she is quite familiar with coast conditions. Jason is the kind of guy who’ll make good use of the information and strategies she can share.

Six teams departed McGrath between supper and mid-night on Thursday. Of the six three are rookies.   Meredith Mapes did manage to fit all the gear from her bigger heavier initial sled into the lighter smaller Stewart built sled. She departed behind 14 ready to rock dogs. The dogs were up off the straw well before Mapes was ready to boot.

Peter Fleck running the Seavey puppies followed Mapes onto the river. A typical run-rest schedule for younger dogs is rest 1.5 times longer than the run. Their objective is to see the trail, camp and have a good time. Fleck’s team was ready to go long before their twenty-four hour layover was completed. They were doing a lot of people and dog watching as they passed the time.

Anja Radano of Talkeetna finished her long layover at 23:08. She prepared her dogs while it snowed. She was on the lee side of the checkpoint building making wind a non-factor. As soon as she descended the river bank and turned toward Takotna she met the wind that would be in her face most of the way to Takotna, 18 miles up the trail. Between goggles and fur ruff, mushers are well equipped for wind in the face. Likewise for sled dogs with their almond shaped eyes.

Magnus Kaltenborn was born and raised in Norway. Kaltenborn departed McGrath at 21:45. Kaltenborn became interested in mushing and the Iditarod in 2003 when Norwegian Robert Sorlie won the Iditarod. In 2008 Magnus came to Alaska and apprenticed with Martin Buser. Magnus completed his rookie run to Nome in 2011 in 11 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes. He now operates Caribou Crossing Kennel in Whitehorse, YT, Canada.

Scott White followed Magnus onto the river just ten minutes later. White is from Washington state where he considers lucky to enjoy the culture of the city and out door adventure. White spends his free time camping hiking, backpacking, skiing, sailing, mountain biking and playing hockey. But he says, “There are few connections with the outdoors as strong as when running dogs. The connection with a team of competitive sled dogs is like no other and that intense amplifies the connection to the wilderness. That’s why I run dogs.” White attempted Iditarod in 2007 then came back to earn his coveted finisher’s buckle in 2010.

Misha Wiljes pulled her snow hook to follow Kaltenborn and White out of McGrath. Once she reaches the checkpoint of Ophir and turns left to follow the southern route to the Yukon River, Misha will be fulfilling her purpose of running the 2018 Iditarod – run the old gold trail through the old gold towns. The ghost town of Iditarod where ITC sets up the Iditarod Checkpoint will be a history lesson Misha is seeking.

Way out in front, Nicolas Petit has reached the Yukon River, winning the Lakefront Anchorage Award for First to the Yukon. More on that to follow.