We took advantage of a weather window and jumped an airplane from Takotna to Anvik. We wanted to stop in Iditarod but high winds and a bumpy ride in the plane weren’t worth it. I took a few photos from the plane window to illustrate that the trail has now changed in character to the relatively flat and endless terrain of the Yukon River Basin. The Interior is the part of alaska, with its long cold winters, in which sled dogs were used as a basic transportation tool. With easily available supplies of salmon from the Yukon, indigenous people and the later miners and trappers could feed big teams of sled dogs.
Many mushers find the Yukon an intimidating and often monotonous trail way, as the Iditarod winds from point to point on endless bends in the river that could take hours to round. Every cold molecule of air in the 2000 mile long basin tumbles to the river bed and flows down river, a constant cold wind . Natives here state, “Wind blows down river in the winter, and during the summer it all blows back.” As the mushers are going upriver to kaltag on this year’s southern route, they can be almost guaranteed with wind in the face, a constant negative force that combines with the grinding sound of drifts of powder and wind blown snow swirling around plastic runners. Here on the Yukon, a team must demonstrate strength.
The run from Iditarod to Shageluk is sixty miles or so and continuing 20 miles brings the musher to the Yukon River at Anvik on the north side. Strategy wise, most front runners want to make the entire 80 mile run to Anvik because they can declare a 8 hour rest, as per rules. If they don’t make it here, it makes it tough to put together a game plan. Just for the argument, however, Martin could decide that the run from iditarod to Shageluk was tough and decide to rest in this village. Then, he could scoot over to Grayling, or any other checkpoint on the Yukon and declare an 8hour mandatory. This is all conjecture, an example of the countless ways a musher can play a move.
While we wait for the first musher to the Yukon ( a $3500 award and a guormet dinner from the Millenium is an added bonus), a surprise visitor arrives. Mike Cusiak comes into the checkpoint looking for Joe Runyan. We meet and he explains that he has been using some trail descriptions I wrote a number of years ago and tells me he has used them on four bicycle trips from Wasilla to Nome. I told him I would trade the articles for his level of fitness.
This guy is amazing. Once racing all year at a competitive level, he puts the time to his family. Basically, he told me, he started this year and has been working himself into fitness. After 520 miles (here in Anvik) he smiled and said he was starting to get trail tough. As a note, he reported that this was the best trail yet—even with overflow just short of Iditarod and the soft going just out of Iditarod. He stopped at iditarod for four days and help put up camp while the trailbreakers put the trail beyond to Shageluk.
When asked about how he felt, he eventually conceded he was still sore, but getting better. Quote of the day, “Biggest mistake, dont underestimate the meaning of a mile” especially in the Alaska wilderness.
In an effort to log a few more miles, Mike left Anvik to drop on the great Yukon in direction Grayling
Just for the heck of it, I called Dick Mackey, Iditarod champ and Lance’s dad, to get his evaluation of the race. Difficult to call, he said. He noted that Aliy Zirkle was running a great race. “She might have made a few mistakes last year. But now she knows herself and what she needs to do to win.”
Aliy is in second place on the trail, in pursuit of Martin Buser. I ask my colleagues here in the Idiarod communication center at Anvik what they think after checking on the tracker. It looks like the two were separated by 20 miles at iditarod and as they approach Shageluk, it’s still 20 miles.
What to watch? Aaron Burmeister should win some minutes as he is travelling on a trail laid down by Zirkle and Martinl. Even in warm temperatures, it seems trails set in a short time at night.