Eye on the Trail: 51st Iditarod is Underway

Wade Marrs Departs Willow (Photo by David Poyzer)

Veteran Jessie Holmes, wearing bib #2 led the field of 33 mushers out on the trail for the fifty-first running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  I almost said the fifty-first trip to Nome but there was the Gold Trail Loop of 2021 that made the trip from Deshka Landing out to Iditarod and back.  Holmes lives in Brushkana, Alaska and is a popular musher for fans of the TV series, Life Below Zero.

Iditarod was the destination Joe Redington, Sr. originally had in mind and thus the namesake.  Nobody seemed to know where Iditarod was and nobody was interested in running a race out to Iditarod and back.  But once the gold coast town of Nome was mentioned as a destination, interest grew.  Now fifty years later, every musher and every race fan knows where Iditarod is along with the history of the abandoned gold mining town.

With 33 mushers, the field for 2023 is the smallest field in race history.  Back in 1973, 34 teams ran the inaugural Iditarod.  You ask, why?  Jeff King and Martin Buser are content with stepping back and giving the spot light to younger mushers while they enjoy doing what they’ve never had time for.  Mitch Seavey is taking time away after a shoulder injury.  Aliy Zirkle simply wanted to retire and enjoy other adventures. Dallas Seavey, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Aaron Burmeister are wanting to spend more time with their children.  Dallas also wants to dedicate more time to his tour business.  And then, there is the economy – everything costs more!  The cost of fuel for transportation, the cost of dog food, you name it and the price has risen.  Some mushers say Iditarod may become an alternate year event as finances permit.

Just a few hours and 42 miles into the race, teams will arrive at Yentna Station, the first of 23 southern route checkpoints.  The late Dan Gabryszak and his wife Jean established the Roadhouse in 1981 and a few years later, the Iditarod route shifted to run the Yentna River and Yentna became an official checkpoint of the race.  The Gabryszak family graciously hosts the checkpoint, opening the lodge to house the communications equipment and serving meals to the small army of volunteers who descend upon Yentna for the first day and night of the race.

On the river, there will be five chutes set up for checkers to handle the tightly packed field of mushers as they descend upon Yentna.  Inside, the comms team will be reporting dog traffic, in times and out times back to Anchorage.  Back in Anchorage comms workers will be receiving the information and uploading it to race stats for fans, friends and family to track the race.  Bibs are collected at Yentna for safe keeping and returned to the mushers outside of Nome.

Another few hours and 30 miles further into the race, teams will arrive at Skwentna.  Having worked comms at Skwentna for a number of years, I can vouch for how thrilling it is to see the headlamp of the first musher way up river.  It’s the trigger for several hours of intense activity in the checkpoint.  So when might the Skwentna River Crew see the headlamp of the first musher to come around the bend?  Looking back at 2020, Robert Redington arrived in Skwentna at 23:40.  That was a slow run through deep newly fallen snow.  A more accurate prediction might come from the 2019 with a hard fast trail.  Jessie Holms checked in at 20:58 and Matt Hall followed a 21:30.  We can’t look at 2021 because the race started at Deshka Landing rather than Willow.  In 2022, the first four mushers, led by Ryan Redington arrived in Skwentna between 21:23 and 21:45.  Based on recent races, I think a safe bet would be a few minutes one side or the other of 21:00.

Something to watch tonight and into tomorrow is who moves up toward the front of the pack.  Teams depart the start in two-minute intervals.  Veteran Deke Naaktgeboren wearing bib #34 will depart  64 minutes after Jessie Holmes in bib #2.  This start differential is added to the 24-hour required layover.  So for tonight and up through the 24-hour rest, the leader isn’t the first team charging down the trail.  But watch to see who’s moving up toward the front from the teams that drew the higher bib numbers.

Insider Bruce Lee asked several mushers how they planned to establish their run/rest schedule.  Several indicated they plan to camp between Yentna and Skwentna this evening.  So, put in 5 to 6 hours or 50 to 60 miles this afternoon then set the snow hook and put straw down and feed a big meal then rest.  This schedule puts them into Finger Lake checkpoint to rest during the heat of the day tomorrow after two sixty mile runs.

Ryan Explains Plates Removed From Wildfire’s Leg (Photo: Insider)

Lee interviewed Ryan Redington and noticed he had some interesting hardware attached to handlebar of his sled.  Ryan explained that his dog, Wildfire was injured by a hit & run snowmachiner last year.  His leg was broken in three places and required three plates and plenty of screws to stabilize the bone while healing.  Two of the three plates have been removed and now hang from the handle bar of Ryan’s sled.  Wildfire finished the Gold Trail Loop with Redington in 2021 at 20 months of age.  After the accident, he healed and rehabbed in 2022.  Wildfire ran the Beargrease in January 2023 and is running in Ryan’s Iditarod team at 100%!

Here are just a few facts while we await the first race stats coming out of Yentna.  Of the 33 mushers, there are 25 males and 8 females.   Twenty-four mushers are race veterans and proudly own the coveted finisher’s belt buckle.  Nine are rookies and dream of receiving the finisher’s belt buckle.  Six of those nine rookies are true rookies and are eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award.  Nine is the fewest number of rookies in race history.  Twenty-nine mushers in the 2023 field hail from the United States.  Four represent foreign soil.  Mille Porsild is from Denmark, Gerhardt Thiart – South Africa, Aaron Peck – Canada and from Australia – Christian Turner.  There are two former champions, Brent Sass 2022 and Peter Kaiser 2019.  Both of these guys would like to become grand champions with a second win.  Their performance in races earlier this winter suggests that’s entirely possible. 

Sit back and enjoy the race.  It’s not too late to select your top ten, rookie of the Year and Red Lantern musher list.  Following the action through the lens of the Insider crew and through GPS tracker is the next best thing to being on the trail and you don’t have to dress for the cold and wear big heavy boots.