March 8 Kaltag 9am–Five on Trail to UNK—Buser and Zirkle Trade Lead

March 8 Kaltag 9am—Five on trail UNK—Who can prevail

We are sitting in Kaltag, preparing to move our Insider operation to Unalakleet.  I tried to gather subjective opinions to provide the reader an overview of the race.

Presently, we have five competitors on the trail to Unalakleet, all with the potential to win.  Aaron Burmeister, Dallas Seavey, and Robert Sorlie, who are resting in Kaltag are part of our calculus, but they are behind the lead pack.  We respect them, but feel the winner is in the top five on the trail to Unalakleet.

Kaltag to Unalakleet is a portage from the great interior basin of the Yukon River to the Bering Sea Coast.   The trail is a real 90 miles and a serious traverse of the small coastal range between Kaltag to Unalakleet presents a hurdle to trail hardened sled dogs.  Veteran race fans look at the run from Kaltag to Unalakleet as a signature test that identifies the most powerful team.  At this stage of the race, the strength of the team is revealed.

Generally, a musher intent on winning the Iditarod would expect the team to travel the entire 90 mile run with a few short stops to feed, change booties, and reorganize the line-up—maybe changing dogs around to get the best working arrangement on the tow line.

However, Aliy Zirkle, who is now running first on the trail, tried a different strategy last night.  She staged her rests and runs so that she could travel about 30 miles up the trail to take a break at a cabin at place called Tripod.  Therefore, she has orchestrated a short sixty mile hop from Tripod to Unalakleet  for her 11 dog team.  She should get a big bump from her rest and I would think be the fastest team on the trail to the coast.  Just my opinion!

Now behind her, Martin Buser is advancing from Kaltag with a 14 member outfit. Martin is the 4x champ and his experience is invaluable.  However, his strategy early in the race has left him with a limited number of options other than to protect his hard earned early lead.  Technically,  considering all the machinations of our lead pack, my experts think Buser is still race leader. 

 Just several miles in arrears, Nicolas Petit is now in third with a big string of 14 dogs too. I have heard enough anecdotal references to the condition of his dogs, their voracious appetite, and attitude that I can say he has a team to watch.  Nicolas Petit still presents an enigma.  How is it that we don’t know him?  This is his third Iditarod. 

Three years ago he was a  handler for Jim Lanier, the 73 year old doc with the all white team of huskies.  Faced with the prospect of hip surgery in mid season, Jim told Nicolas, “Why don’t you take my dogs and run the Iditarod.”  Big adventure, opportunity of a lifetime, handler gets handed team, call all your friends, “Guess what, I am running the Iditarod.”  In the next year, he makes a deal with Rayme Redington, son of race founder Joe Redington Sr, and father of Ray Redington, Jr.  In a meteoric rise to fame he appears on the mushing scene in 6th place with dogs he just met. He is regarded as a sort of fluke, an intruder in the top echelons of mushdom.

Through the winter of 2013/2014 he made more dog deals, acquisitions, and assembled a team. One could say objectively that he is mushing on a budget.  Living in his truck through the winter and spending extended periods of time camping, I am told that he was presenting his team with a daily life on the trail.  Their life revolved around long training runs, camping, and therefore the regimen of racing was their daily ritual. Anecdotally, Dean Osmar, the 1984 champ and one of my best sources of insight, told me he had seen Petit fooling around in a parking lot with his team, accurately negotiating parked cars and trucks with his very good leaders.  As I noted in a previous article, Petit appears to have mimicked Jeff King in a number of ways, including equipment and strategy. In particular, he is rotating leaders to his Jeff King design caboose sled and generating fast times with fresh leaders—just like King.  Now he is running third in the Iditarod and presents a legitimate challenge.

On the trail, we find his mentor, Jeff King, and Sonny Lindner on the trail in the 4-5 position.  Of course, we expect to see parries, attacks, surges, deft challenges, on the trail to Unalakleet as mushers stop to feed, provide the dogs with a quick rest, change booties, etc.  The pack is tight to the front and we expect changes in the lead from time to time.

Upon arriving in Unalakleet,the race will change in character, along with the transition we make from the stands of spruce and long sweeping sloughs and game rich water ways of the Yukon to the wind of the Bering Sea Coast.  On the coast we find unending vistas of treeless tundra extending to a far horizon of the Bering Sea.  The snow changes in character from the light, dry crystal of the interior, to the sea air, windblown snow of the coast, almost like a box of Tide detergent.  The snow constantly blows in a ground storm of swirling white around the musher’s sled.  The views are uninterrupted from horizon to horizon and the constant stimulation of a trail in stands of trees or on river beds is replaced by long periods marked by the steady trot of the dogs.

Alone on the tundra, many mushers find the experience on the coast surreal and peaceful. Sometimes one can feel a sadness knowing that the trail is almost over and the freedom on the sled will end. The winner will arrive in Nome in less than three days.

Weather, according to pilots, is expected to be stable for the next three days with bright skies.  Therefore we expect good trails for our competitors.