March 12 2:34pm Kaltag Top Twenty

March 12 2:34pm Kaltag  Top Twenty

Joe Runyan

WE have clear skies in Kaltag, but our next checkpoint at Unalakleet visiblitly is low and flights temporarily on hold.  Therefore, its a shuffle for camera placement.  As the lead pack pushes to UNK, I remain in Kaltag where it seems the top twenty is either in Kaltag or on the move to Unk.

Temperature at Kaltag is 20f and we all walk about with light coats and baseball hats.  Sebasatian Vernaud was in a very good mood as he checked into the checkpoint.  He started with 12 dogs, a small team, but still has 11 dogs, a substantial team at this stage of the race. 

Sebastian Vernaud is in a very good mood on arrival to Kaltag. HIs eleven dogs were barking and pounding into their harness

The Frenchman is more an adventurer than a racer and everyday’s progess is a win.  HE was discussing the minutiae of the trail in front with the checker in Kaltag.

Certainly the frenzy and action we saw in the front pack is not here, as mushers are more pragmatic, resting longer, and noticeably relaxed in the afternoon sun.   At a table in the checkpoint, JOhn Baker, Ralph johanessen, Richie Diehl, and Pete Kaiser eat their pre-packaged musher meal and joke about the trail.Was it their intention at the start of the race to win or place very well?  Absolutely, I think it’s true that  they intended to race hard but the vagaries of the trail, luck, and the competition brought them to a realization that their race is now one of common sense mushing.  With rest and an easy going  schedule their dog teams are hopping from checkpoint to checkpoint, expedtion style.

Mats Pettersson, an experienced musher from Sweden, arrives with his team of fourteen swifts, does the checkpoint hustle despite the general desultory mood in the warm afternoon sun, and blows the checkpoint in direction UNK with 12 dogs.   HE is an exception as most mushers are now quite mechanical, and content to stop and rest in a checkpoint with water and a warm place to sleep.  Has managed to drop two dogs, load his sled with new supplies, and all within fifteen minutes.

Paul Gebhardt has had a long and distinguished career and many close brushes with first place including two second place finishes.  “My back hurts, I’m stiff, I’m old,” he jokes as he brings in gear to dry to the checkpoint.  Nobody says, “Paul, you are not old, your’e back probably doesn’t hurt, and you walk like you’r not stiff.”   But they are humored by his presence..  Paul will stay eight hours to satisfy the mandatory rest rule.

Final Thoughts

Inexplicably, somehow, Mitch Seavey does not shake the following pack as we view the knot of front runners approaching Unalakleet.  In fact, Wade Marrs, followed by Nic Petit are travellig fast.  They could be first mushers to the Bering Sea Coast, a developent we could not have predicted 12 hours ago.  Still, I think Mitch is guarding his advantage and not taking risks with his team, opting instead to rest periodically.

Ahead, the trail from UNK to Shaktoolik, an inconceivable village built on a spit and notoriously vulnerable to wind, is good for a strong team and a musher with legs.  The trail follows the sea shore, but demands strength from the team as it ascends seriously in the Blue Berry Hills, then falls back to the sea ice and approaches Shaktoolik on freshwater ice and wind blown drifts as the trail follows the edge of the spit.   Why build here?  The wind brings game close to the village and fishing is good.