Austrian hiker Klaus Schweinberger strolled into Nome on Tuesday afternoon to bring to an end the official season of adventure on the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
The last to finish the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the 53-year-old from Tirol had been 29 days, 21 hours and 23 minutes on a 1,000 mile trek from the old port of Knik at the head of Cook Inlet just outside of Alaska’s largest city to the Bering Sea.
Ahead of him had come dozens of competitors on snowmachines in the Iron Dog race, on fat-tire bikes in the Invitational, behind dog teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and finally the on foot in the Invitational.
Behind him back along the still snow-covered route to urban Alaska, parts of the trail were again empty but for the Alaska villagers who use it as a winter highway for snowmachine travel and the wildlife that crosses it where no people go.
Large parts of the trail on the north side of the Alaskan Range and across the long-abandoned “Inland Empire” between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers is seldom traveled by people, if traveled at all, except during what has come to be the Iditarod season.
Begun in 1973 with the first running of a now fabled, long-distance dog race, an Iditarod season that once spanned a few weeks in March these days stretches out for more than six weeks from late February almost to April.
The Iron Dog started things off when it sent a group of “recreational class” riders north from Big Lake in the Susitna Valley on Feb. 19. The Iron Dog pros followed two-days later. Within a week, 30-year-old Tyler Aklestad from Palmer and 36-year-old Tyson Johnson from Eagle River had sped to Nome, taken a 24-hour break for a party there, and then dashed to Fairbanks to complete 2,000 miles in the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race.
Iron Doggers are required to travel in teams of two for safety, the primary danger being high-speed crashes which have left a significant number of competitors with broken bones over the years. To win this year’s Iron Dog, Aklestad and Johnson had to average — average — 57 mph on their Ski-doos. A couple Polaris riders were less than 40 minutes behind them at the finish.
As the snowmachines were roaring into Fairbanks, the fat-tired bikers that have come to dominate the Invitational were getting ready to roll out of Knik. It wouldn’t take the first of them long to get up and over the Alaska Range to finish out the first leg of that race — the Invitational short for 350 miles to McGrath.
Anchorage’s Tim Bernston hit McGrath in less than 48 hours to again put the sled dogs to shame. He became only the fourth cyclist to break the two-day barrier. With warm weather smiling on the race, there were lots of other cyclists not far behind him, including Nome’s Phil Hofstetter.
He pedaled on on through McGrath and kept cranking toward home to win the Invitational long in a time of 11 days, 5 hours and 15 minutes. As late as 2013, it had been thought a significant accomplishment to pedal to Nome in under 20 days, but Fairbanks’ Jeff Oatley seriously changed everyone’s thinking when he did the 1,000-mile trail in a record 10 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes in 2014.
Oatley might well have ended the era when it was the norm for Iditarod dog mushers to catch the lead cyclists along the trail. The mushers, who start a week after the Invitational, didn’t come close this year, although four-time champion Dallas Seavey and his team — down as it was to six dogs at the end — set a race record in going 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome in 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes and 16 seconds.
(The Iron Dog, the Invitational, and the Iditarod dog race all start from different communities, but the distance to Nome for all three is about the same.)
Seavey’s Iditarod win was the third in a row, and the fourth overall, for the 28-year-old musher from Willow who is clearly poised to join now-retired Rick Swenson from Two Rivers as a five-time Iditarod champ.
Behind him on the trail, he’d passed cyclist Jill Homer from Los Altos, California, but she wasn’t that far back. Only about a day after Seavey crossed under the burled arch that marks the finish in Nome, Homer pedaled into town to set a women’s cycling record for the Invitational of 17 days, 3 hours and 46 minutes.
And the records weren’t done falling because behind Homer on the trail was a 61-year-0ld lawyer from Pennsylvania doing what a lot of people had thought impossible — snowshoeing, hiking, jogging, sometimes running 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome in under 20 days.
By never sleeping more than four hours at a time and completing the average distance of about two marathons a day for 20 days, Hewitt set a record many expect could stand for a long time.
Behind him, Schweinberger — an Invitational veteran who said he just loves to soak up the winter wilderness of Alaska — was moving along at a more leisurely pace, and possibly enjoying the journey more. His biggest complaint was that the year was too warm.
Met on the trail just outside of the Finger Lake checkpoint early in the race with temperature an unseasonable 40 to 45 degrees and a bright sun beating down and reflecting off the snow, he said being on the Iditarod was too much like crossing the desert.
That would change. Temperatures in the Interior would fall to 20 degrees below zero. But none of the competitors racing the 2016 Iditarod season would have to endure the brutal, 40- to 50-below-zero temperatures for which the Iditarod is famous.
No one really complained.