October 20, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Zirkle, Royer & Kool-Aid

Twenty-one teams have finished Iditarod XLVI. Having been in several checkpoints along the trail, a pattern of “bunches” has developed, a bunch of twenty near the front. McGrath experienced a very dense influx of mushers near the front as did Nome and everywhere between. I’m now in Nome and will pick up with the mushers as they pass under the Burled Arch.

BTW, did you know that the first finish line wasn’t marked by the Burled Arch? Realizing they needed something to mark an “official” end point, somebody produced a package of Kool-Aid. The powdered drink mix was sprinkled on the snow to mark plane the leader’s nose must break to complete the race. MMnn, almost makes me want to find a pack of Kool-Aid just to remember what the early days of the race were like. There are plenty of old timers around who’ll be able to verify the color.

Following my people at the back of the pack, Tara Cicatello leads Steve Watson down the Old Kaltag Portage Trail. The coast and Unalakleet checkpoint is within reach today. A further along the coast, Marcelle Fressineau is resting in Shaktoolik. Anja Radano, Meredith Mapes, Jason Stewart and Magnus Kaltenborn are closing in on Koyuk. Shayne Traska, Tim Muto and Al Eischens are in Koyuk. Fifteen teams are on the trail to White Mountain; seven are resting in White Mountain and five have departed White Mountain to cover the final seventy-seven miles to Nome.

It took Lars Monson about 9.5 hours to cover the distance from White Mountain to the Burled Arch. Leading the pack of five out after the required eight-hour rest was Anna Berington. Using Lar’s run time, I’d expect to see Anna about 13:00 and Katherine Keith about 19:00 with Michi Konno, Jeff King and Mike Williams Jr. sandwiched between.

Even though twilight rules the scene until 09:00, there were folks out and about. Nome’s Mini Convention Center is Iditarod’s Nome Headquarters. A long time volunteers who’s worked a zillion Iditarod positions was siting behind the Information desk. Taped to here fleece like a logo was a sign say, “I don’t know.” Well, I had to find out about that and Jennifer was more than willing to share the story. About the time the first mushers were departing Unalakleet and were still 261 miles short of Nome, people started asking her, who the Champion would be and when the Champion arrive. Jennifer said I answer, “I don’t know,” so many times I finally just made this up like a logo and pointed to it after that.

Nicolas Petit was sitting quietly in a back corner of the Mini stage wrapped in his sleeping bag with his leader Libby on his lap. It was a picture of the strong bond between musher and sled dogs. Libby was literally smiling and clearly enjoying having Nic’s full attention. The same was true for Nicolas. Pretty sure there’s strategy already being planned by Team Petit for Team Petit for 2019.

Parents of Ray Redington, Jr. were sitting in the Mini and talking about Michi Konno who is due in yet today with his team of Redington dogs. More about Michi then. Raymie and Barb, Ray ‘s parents were clearly proud of his fourth place finish. Ray has put together a string of seventeen Iditarod runs since 2001. He’s finished between 7th and 5th five times. Fourth place is his best finish. His best time was in 7th place in 2017 – 8 days, 21 hours and 13 minutes. His 2018 times was 9 days, 21 hours and 3 minutes. In sporting events times and places are relative to the conditions and other competitors. Nothing truer can be said about the 2018 Iditarod.

Ray Jr. is a third generation musher. He follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, uncles and brothers. His mother Barb (Ryan) and her family from Unalakleet are also mushers. Barb ran the JR. Iditarod in 1977 and earned the Red Lantern. Ray met the love of his life while racing in the JR. Iditarod. He and Julia have two children, Ellen and Isaac. Yes, the next generation of Redingtons loves to mush.

A crowd of family and Aliy Zirkle fans gathered to welcome her to the Burled Arch. Arriving to the chant, “Way to Go Aliy, Way to Go,” she claimed 15th place with ten dogs. Earlier in the race, Aliy remarked that her team was happy and healthy but just didn’t seem to have the zip they normally run with. This feeling was shared by many of the 2018 mushers.  Aliy commented on the confidence shared between mushers and athletes, especially in a race with tough conditions like 2018. Zirkle considers the Iditarod to be the ultimate statement about the dog-human bond. The trust between coach and athlete is extremely important in the whiteout conditions produced by ground blizzards like experienced leaving Shaktoolik. Aliy was greeted by a huge number of kids. Before she left the chute they gathered with their hero for a group howl. Thank you Aliy for howling with those youngsters, working with kids in the villages, being a role model and an inspiration to young fans. After winning the Yukon Quest in 2000, Zirkle has finished eighteen consecutive Iditarod runs. Six of those finishes have been in the top eight and three have been in second place.

Jessie Royer was next to the finish line. Royer was also scratching her head as to where the speed of her dogs team went. She’s finished Iditarod seventeen times and has placed in the top 10 six times with 4th place being her best finish. Royer praised her Fur-ball leaders. One is a four race veteran the other was a rookie this year. Jessie says, folks laugh at the hairy pair as they are really not typical looking Alaskan Huskies. Folks are even more amazed that the Fur-Balls are the leaders of Royer’s team.  Commenting on the trail, Royer likened it to skiing on sandpaper. She said it was hard to keep a positive attitude with the trail being so slow. She said one of the highlights (literally) was seeing the Northern Lights one night after so many cloudy snowy days and nights.

That’s it for now from the Burled Arch in Nome. Stay tuned for more stories as teams arrive and celebrate their trip across Alaska. I’m off to find the cookout with fabulous Reindeer Sausage and somebody who knows what color the Kool-Aid was.