October 1, 2014

Tuesday February 25 Iditarod arrives

Like a world convention, the Iditarod arrives and converges on Anchoage.  I eased into Anchorage late last night on a  sleepy flight out of Portland, Oregon, noticed some veterinarians with their very large duffle bags of winter gear and sleeping bag, and overheard passengers talking about the start this weekend, March 1.  I talked to one of them who lives along the trail just out of Willow, who told me that the trail had been rerouted.   

Having talked to Mike Jonrowe several days ago, husband of top contender Dee Jonrowe and an expert on the trail in the Willow area,  I knew that fourteen days ago the trail from Willow was considered impassible and unnavigatable by dog team afer warm weather melted ice and destroyed trail.    In fact the Iditarod Trail committee considered changing the start to the north at Fairbanks but decided on Feb 17 to keep the Willow re-start.  A cold blast solidified open water on the Skwetna River and a fortuitous snow storm blanketed the trail.   “The trail is now  very good.  A day ago you could have played hockey on the smooth ice.”

So, I asked my contact on the plane why the trail was being re-routed near her house.   “I think the ice is so smooth on the river ice that the mushers can’t set their snow hooks and stop the dogs, so they changed the trail a little just after Deshka Landing (I think I got it right, but you get the picture.)   

To be honest, however, I just want to see the dogs.   I think the field is loaded with so many top contenders this year that conjecture would be silly, other than to say “this is another great dog team.”

Aliy Zirkle, for example, is the top female musher this year.   I just did an article about her in the February flight magazine for Alaska Air and interviewed her twice, once at her home, and the other in Dawson, NWT, as she was waiting for husband Allen to depart on the 1000 mile Yukon Quest trail to Whitehorse.  He proceeded to win the race.  One of her big fans told me, “She has the best team in Alaska.  Her husband has won the Quest in 2012 and 2013 and she was second in 2012 and 2013 in the Iditarod.”

Of course, more on her during the race, but here are some facts to digest.  She has two males 51 pounds, and the rest of the team is 36 to 43 pounds.  Aliy is a former volley ball player at U. of Pennsylvania, and is an appropriately tall woman at about 6 foot.   Therefore she is easily recognized on the sled as she is the tallest profile of last years top five finishers.

Ironically, however, her dogs are the smallest.  Contrast her team to the all male team of 2013 Champ Mitch Seavey, which weigh in at 55 to 60 pounds—-and more.

Hoping not to miss any of our top contenders, I mention Mitch Seavey the Senior, his son Dallas Seavey the Younger, King, Buser, Redington, Baker, Ulsom. Burmeister, Berkowitz, et al.  More on them when we see them filter into Anchorage.

However, let me say something about a new development in this years Iditarod.   Robert Sorlie, the Norwegian and two time Iditarod champ has flown, at great personal sacrifice and expense, to Alaska with his team of sled dogs.   Sorlie has the best winning percentage of any Iditarod musher.   He has raced four times, and despite the disadvantages of not training in Alaska, he won the race twice.  Two out of four is not a fluke.   He is back again after a seven year hiatus, this time combining his team with that of fellow norwegian musher Thomas Waerner into what my Norwegian contacts are calling a “super” team.  He will impact the race with his very methodical, but unrelenting strategy of long runs and calculated rests.  His dogs are calm, relaxed, and assured, superbly trained for long runs of 60 to 100 miles,  and have a very noticeable behavioralism.   You can be not far from the team and they will relax on their beds as if you only exist like a thing of very little interest, like a tree or a very inanimate brown boulder .  When Robert approaches, heads rise, tails wag,  and the eyes of all focus and follow him.  On the race trail, he is the center.  

In particular, I count Mitch Seavey and Dallas SEavey, our most recent champions, to defend with their own conservative style which is designed to overpower the competition in the last third of the race.  Dallas Seavey, with youth and the athleticism of an international athlete, is a dervish in checkpoints, especially in the closing days of the race when other mushers are exhausted, lathargic and mechanical.  If he is five minutes faster in performing his chores, his dogs can nap.

Great dynamics.  Should I mention that Mitch, Dallas, and Robert were all very good amatuer wrestlers, a completely self reliant sport?

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