Thumped and trumped by Mother Nature, the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race was stopped on the Bering Sea coast Monday night.
It seems there remain obstacles in the north that cannot be bested by men and machines.
Facing a powerful, warm-weather storm roaring in across the frozen Bering Sea from the southwest, officials of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog – a race which annually challenges the risky wilds of Alaska from Big Lake north to Nome and from Nome east Fairbanks – decided travel was too dangerous and announced it was holding the race in Unalakleet.
Unalakleet, a community of about 700 some 400 miles northwest of Anchorage, is where the Iditarod National Historic Trail from the Interior of Alaska meets the coast. Race officials announced they would hold any teams reaching the coast until early Tuesday to see what the weather was going to do.
Twenty-sixteen Iron Dog champs Tyler Akelstad from Palmer and Tyson Johnson from Eagle River led the race into the small village of Kaltag, 85 miles northeast of Unalakleet at the east end of the Kaltag Portage, just before 4 p.m. Monday afternoon.
They were on layover there as were Mike Morgan from Nome and partner Chris Olds from Eagle River, a two-time, Iron Dog champ. Morgan and Olds are backed by Polaris snowmobiles, the one-time dominate Iron Dog manufacturer which has struggled in recent years.
Akelstad and Johnson are on Ski-doos. Morgan and Olds were only four minutes behind the race leaders at Kaltag. Three other teams were within an hour and seven minutes of the front.
Race rules require riders to race in pairs for safety. The rule has helped saved the lives of several injured racers over the years. Friendly villagers have helped bail out others.
Weather conditions were Tuesday shaping up similar to those that brought Strobel and Gravet so much grief in 2015. Gale force winds out of the southwest pushed high tides up into the frozen marshes between Golovin and White Mountain in 2015.
The area appeared to be ground zero for the latest storm as well. A weather service radar showed a powerful cell moving southwest straight toward the Iditarod Trail, which follows the coast north from Unalaklet to Shatoolik before jumping onto the sea ice of Norton Bay to cross to the village of Koyuk before turning west for Nome.
The trail along the coast is highly exposed to weather.
The National Weather Service warned that “high water may push into low-lying areas along the coast such as lagoons and rivers from the Yukon Delta to Nome.”
And water wasn’t the only concern.
A companion winter storm warning from the federal agency cautioned that along the southern Seward Peninsula coast “heavy snow and blowing snow with local blizzard conditions (are) expected. Travel will be very difficult to impossible. Total snow accumulations of 8 inches.
“Winds gusting as high as 50 mph will cause areas of blowing and drifting snow with low visibility.”
The temperature in Unalkaleet on Sunday evening was an unseasonable 34 degrees. The winds were gusting to 20 from the south.