Additions to the top ten/ more on trail conditions

A few additions to our top Ten annex

How could I be so negligent?  At the mushers meeting held this Thursday morning at the Millennium Hotel I milled around the gathering mushers and noted Aaron Burmeister,  Hans Gatt (absent last year), Hugh Neff (also returning to Iditarod after an hiatus), and Dee Jonrowe—–in no particular order—- and came to the conclusion that these are prime time Force VECTORS.  Of course, there must be others I missed.

Aaron Burmeister, readers recall, ran a methodical race to Kaltag to the front in 2013, and faded.   Part of the reason he pulled up and coasted to Nome was a problem with the pads of his chargers.  Initially, he suspected that the rain and pools of water on the trail had softened the pads, but after thinking more about it realized that the dogs with lots of hair on the feet (normally a good character for arctic dogs working in snow) were more at risk than the smooth footed huskies.  As an aside, therefore, he will trim the pads as is commonly done by other mushers.

All that aside, Burmeister was running to the front and is returning again with another powerful team.  Interestiingly, he told me that he is running his dogs everyday prior to race to maintain metabolic efficiency.  Once the dogs are trained in long distance, their ability to process food becomes more efficient.  Leave them as couch potatoes, he tells me, if only for a few days before race time, and the dogs quickly lose that ability.

Hans Gatt is a Yukon Quest champ and out of our field of vision as he sat out last year’s race.  He is a triatholon athlete, always fit, and perennially competitive over his long career.  I know him well and shaking his hand abrubtly asked, “Is the team good enough to win?”  With little hubris, “You know me, I’ve come to win.”

Hugh Neff, like Gatt, is a Yukon Quest champ, knows how to run to the Iditarod front of the pack, and was not in last year’s race.   So, we can safely say we are not ignoring his chances, but only that he was off the radar.  Talking personally to Hugh earlier this day, he confirmed that he has put together a new team, trained hard, and expects to be once again in his familiar position to the front.

Dee Jonrowe has not relinquished her traditional hold on a top ten finish over an incredible career of racing extending back to 1979.   She is 60 years old and weighs—-can I hazard a guess?—-110 or 105 or 106?  She is the perfect musher, light on the sled with a brain loaded with important facts of experience.  In combination with her select team of huskies, she presents a very serious challenge to the race leaders.  Still, in the context of this year’s trail, she has freely expressed her concern about controlling her powerful, and very exuberant, team of huskies through the dicey trail sections.  With a little luck, however, she is a major player.

A subject amongst mushers today is the state of the trail, which is reported fast and hard with a few known areas, especially on hillsides approaching Rainy Pass checkpoint as really dicey glaciers.  These areas are known for springs that flow all winter, freeze, and form gigantic “glaciers.”  Since these are formed on hillsides, one can imagine the potential for catastrophe and also comic predicaments. 

The teams rolls along, hits the ice, speeds up with a natural inclination to ge t to the other side, and suddenly the sled slides sidewise like a hockey puck to the the bottom of the glacier—-at the same time dragging the team into brush and debris.  Usually a massive tangle  follows, the musher stretches out the team again, lines up the sled like a cue ball to the end of the glacier, and continues.  Occassionally , however, the sled catches an edge and flips, a development that concerns mushers.  Jeff King, for example, thought he might wear a helmet, and wasn’t joking.


The Trail

Why is the trail of so much interest when it seems, unequivocally, that the mushers always have made it in 41 years of Iditarod, and despite huge dumps of snow, dearths of snow, warm weather and absolutely cryogenic 40 below weather?

Honestly, it may be more for the imagination of the fan than the musher, who stoically accepts conditions realizing its the same for all, to conjure images of potential disaster.

Nevertheless, I cant resist after having had breakfast with Jeff Pralle, our insider snow machine guide and expert on the first third of the trail, to describe conditions.    He has just returned from a round trip snowmachine ride from Willow (the start on Sunday) to Rohn checkpoint (mile 188)  on the north side of the Alaska Range.   All this was done in his capacity as a trail breaker and guide for the Iditarod Trail Committee

Temperatures in Anchorage are 45 plus and I can look out the window of Iditarod headquarters and see roads wet with melting snow.   We are even worried about buying rain coats for tomorrows broadcast of the Ceremonial Start on 4th Avenue  Anchorage.   

Although it may be cooler in the slopes of the Alaska Range, one can imagine freezing and thawing on the trail leading upto RACE Time on Sunday Morning.  The trail is an olympic luge run,interrupted by incovenient and terrifying descents into creek bottoms and natural detours around white spruce or boulders guarding crossings down the Dalzell gorge.

Presently, Jeff tells me that the trail is hard and hard, very fast often leading through  thick stretches of brush which are normally buried in six feet of snow.   This will make for very physical mushing,the sled careening down glazed inclines, the musher standing on a studded drag, as ice chips rooster tail behind the sled and brush whips the musher.

These conditions are for the contrarian, a truth which is opposed to common sense.   Mitch Seavey, the 2013 champ, expained to me that the “fast team” is poorly suited for the fast trail.  In fact, a fast team does best on a slow trail, where dramatic surges on hills or straight going is padded by snow against injury.  Conversely, a slow team, or at the very least an intelligent team led by wise old leaders and trained to trot, is the best fit for this years trail.

A thoughtful, steady, traverse of the Alaska range at a trot preserves the dog team,  protects the giant canine engine from injury. A team with wild exuberance, bolting at every opportunity with bursts of speed when the sled meets zero resistance on hard ice trail, will prevail at the top of the fast checkpoint times listed at the,  but suffer in the following days from the dangers of speed.

Already, the race fan is looking for subtleties of intelligence from the mushers.  The first two hundred miles of the trail, in terms of trail challenges is universally regarded as the technically most difficult  of the entire trail to Nome.   The powerful teams of the SEaveys, Dallas and Mitch, or Norwegian Sorlie may be slower in the first several hundred miles, but it could be they purposefully trained and planned for a mechanical passage up and over the Alaska Range.