We just took a plane out of Nikolai in direction Takotna to find Aaron Burmeister leading the pack from Takotna to McGrath. Using the GPS tracker tool, we can deduce that Aaron is about five miles ahead of Aliy Zirkle (2nd place 2012 Iditarod) and ten miles ahead of Lance Mackey and Mitch Seavey.
Generally speaking, we can also make a prediction that Aaron will land in Takotna about 8PM to 9PM tonight, which is why we jumped an airplane to make sure we are in Takotna before dark. Aaron has been open about his decision to take his 24 hour mandatory in Takotna, so we are taking his word for it and putting an Insider camera on the trail.
The weather here in Takotna is balmy, incredibly warm, at about 40F. It’s crazy, since it very often happens that it’s minus 40F here in Takotna during Iditarod. Takotna is known as a cold hole in the Interior and spring break up is usually the last week of April or early May. Therefore, we find such an extended warm spell bizarre.
What effect does this have on the race? Aaron told us that he was rolling with the warm weather and being positive. “The warm weather will make my dogs go slow and that should keep them safe from injury.” Despite all his talk of slow going, however, Aaron shares fastest on the trail with Zirkle, Seavey, Mackey, and King.
More on lance
Lance is continuing to surprise himself. After a dissapointing Yukon Quest and scratching in Dawson—a rare screw up for the 4x champ—-he returned home and attempted to reassemble a team from some of the dogs used by his handler, four from his Quest team, completely new dogs from Jay Cadzow. “A couple of them have never been in a five mile race, that’s how inexperienced this team is.”
While he consumed another cheese sandwich in the local school cafeteria he continued that he got home from the Quest with only several weeks to prepare for Iditarod. he had a lot of reasons to be bummed out, but he decided to do as well as possible with the dogs available. “Braxton (his handler” helped me train 20 dogs. We harnessed all of them and put them in a team. They didnt come out of harness for over a week. I would take them on a run and them park them in front of the house checkpoint style. Then Braxton would take them on an easy run, maybe 20 miles, and back to the house. Sometimes I would take them 70 miles, but everything was easy and just like racing resting in harness.”
At the end of two weeks, he chose his 16 dog team. For the first part of the race he just wanted to gain their confidence. He does this by convincing them that he will absolutely protect them and feed them. Then they really start to work for him. Needless to say, he is a master, and I am not alone in admiring his skill and empathy with his dogs.
In his run from Rainy Pass to Rohn, he stopped three times to feed snacks and reassure his team, a practise he says will gradually bring the team to him.
Incidentally, Lance took a super dive in Dalzell creek hitting so hard he folded his metal snowshoe frames. His water proof sled bag filled up with water, drenching his sleeping bag, dog blankets, and extra gear. Eventually, he traded his sleeping bag in the Rohn checkpoint with a volunteer and continued with dry socks from his brother jason in direction Nikolai.
His Leader AMP is also known as “Hollywood” given his love of people and attention. “He loved the cameras at the start. Once we got away from the crowds he slowed down and i put him back in the team.” Munch and Jester are presently his leaders, set at a speed of about 9 miles an hour. “Why would anyone want to go faster,” asked lance rhetorically. Good question. Is it fast enough to win? Asked about the teams general condition, Lance commented, “Really been lucky on the feet. One dog has one small split, othewise they are all perfect.”
Brent Sass is moving easily within the front pack and has no intention of destroying the magic. Therefore, he is calculating and consistent in his schedule. Enroute to Nikolai in the warm sun, he neglected to secure his down coat. Luckily Robert Bunson (Doctor Bunson in his day job) saw the coat on the trail and returned the important gear item to Brent. “You just have to stay out of the sun, and run when the sun is down.” was his answer to the warm temperatures.
John Baker, shown below, is one of the mushers most frustrated by warm weather. His cold weather Kotzebue dogs are still running “average” speeds. Still, all informants tell us that his team is moving like a machine at trot and flawless. One cameraman told me, “I dont know anything about dogs, but John Baker’s team was absolutely smooth when he came in.” While tallking to an official that saw him come into Nikolai, I was also told the same thing. He is waiting for a cool night to uncork his dogs. So, John Baker, along with Brent Sass (photo above) et al, are in the wings ready to make a move if they get the shot at the front.
I kept seeing Nicolas Petit to the front of the pack in the standings and finally had the chance to talk to him in Nikolai. He was just ten minutes behind 4xchamp Jeff King and for the moment residing in 17th place. His travel times between checkpoints have been consistently competitive. I heard one musher say, “That guys tough, like an extra dog in the team.”
Jessie Royer adds to the complexity of the Iditarod field, especially since taking a leave of absence from the Iditarod, and now returning with a very competitive team. She is particulary careful not to make long runs of more than six hours, and even still breaks these runs with short breaks. She is committed to a 24 hour mandatory stop in Takotna.
No present discussion of this year’s race would be complete without mentioning Mitch Seavey. His is running what could be the fastest team on the trail. “I am really surprised,” he told me, ” because I am not intentionally thinking speed.” His goal is consistency. Anecdotally, I heard a good story from Bruce Lee, Insider Analyst, who was sitting on a log at a point where the trail exited the Rohn Checkpoint. In the quiet night, he heard Mitch talking out loud to himself, “Water, check, sleeping bag, check, axe, check,….” like a jet pilot on take off. No one has a glimpse into the details of his strategy. Mitch is third or fourth position to the front of the pack travelling to McGrath as i write this post.
Paul Gebhardt is a hardened veteran who has nearly won the Iditrarod (2nd place) and also has made a few risky decisions that didnt work. Understandably, he is careful, now only running 60 mile jumps. Asked about his ride through the Dalzel and a nasty piece of trail outside Rohn, he reported, “It was like Mr. Toad’s wild Ride. One part of the trail had no snow, just dirt and ice, and some downed timber. One tree was uprooted, with the main trunk laying about four feet above the ground. My lead dogs went right under the tree instead of going around the trunk. Luckily I stopped them before crashing but i had tough time getting the team from under the tree.” On strategy, Paul said you run your own race and read your own team, but “You got to hang with the lead pack or you lose them….”
Sonny Lindner, walking back from the Nikolai school, was walking back to his team when I happened to run into the 1984 Yukon Quest Champ. He’s also had many top ten Iditarod finishers over the last four decades of his mushing career. Other mushers say his team is a bullet train, evidenced by some very fast checkpoint to checkpoint times.
The field conquered the most exhilierating part of the Iditarod trail by successfully traversing the alaska Range. Dee JOnrowel, the very petite musher who has run an incredibl 31 iditarods, told me the Dalzel was absolutely terrifying. I can understand why. The team is big and powerful and would be a handful for a 250 pound athlete not to mention a 105 pounder. “It was as bad as i have seen. It was terrifying.”
Aaron leads pack into McGrath. Martin Buser, the very bold 4x champ, who we have almost forgotten over the last twenty four hours, is on the trail again after his mandatory in Rohn. Now having taken his 24 hour early in Rohn, he will leap frog other mushers who will now declare their 24 mandatory rest further up the trail. Since his strategy is novel, no one has the expertise to even comment on how well it will work, but the pundits and mushers I talked to grant he has the luxury of six hours time to leverage over the next 800 miles of his race.