With more dog mushers needing rescue on Friday and some competitors in the muscle-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) pulled off the route, 2020 will go down as the year Mother Nature bit back at competitors and travelers on Alaska’s most iconic route to Nome.
After the warmest year in state history, the north reminded frail humans it still has some icy teeth.
Cold, snow and wind, the Iditarod threw it all at people. Mother Nature did not discriminate. The Iron Dog snowmachine, the ITI and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race all took a beating.
And most of that was largely before the latter two races ended with the threat of a deadly coronavirus – Covid-19 – and a global pandemic coloring everything.
One man’s warning
The suffering started even before the competitors in the state’s biggest, semi-professional, sporting events hit the trail.
Adventurer Tim Hewitt, the record-holding hiker who once hoofed it to Nome at a speed that would have been fast enough to win the first Iditarod dog race, thought he was going to steal a march on the Irondog’s plan for the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race to become even longer and tougher with a loop to Kotzebue on the Bering Sea coast north of the Arctic Circle.
Having longed to reach the true Arctic, Hewitt saw an opportunity to follow the snowy trail the Iron Dog broke to Kotzebue Sound. Unfortunately for the Pennsylvania laywer, there was no broken Iron Dog trail when he set out.
He pushed on anyway despite temperatures plunging to 50 degrees below zero and head-high snow drifts. He suffered the almost inevitable frostbite that comes with days on the trail at such temperatures especially if the wind is blowing.
Simply put, it was bad, but for a man who’d endured this sort of suffering before it might have been surmountable if only there’d been a trail. Only there wasn’t.
“My plan was flawed,” Hewitt admitted after he abandoned the trail at the Yukon River village of Ruby.
Three-hundred twenty miles into what was to have been a 1,290-mile journey and already days behind schedule, he watched the Iron Dog come roaring past and realized that whatever trail it left between the coastal village of Koyuk and the villages of Kotzbue Sound was sure to be blown in and lost by the time he got there.
Twenty-nine teams of Iron Dog racers compromised 58 racers blasted past Hewitt in Ruby.
Only 11 of them would make it the full 2,400 miles from Fairbanks to Kotzebue to Nome and then back to Big Lake north of Anchorage via the Iditarod Trail. Afterward, everyone involved with a race that built its reputation on a junkyard of busted snowmachines would agree this was pretty much the roughest, toughest race yet.
“It was a little challenging this year,” the Iron Dog’s Doug Dixon would say at the finish while the race publicist was noting that “the additional mileage, along with extreme weather, took its toll on the machines and riders.
“We had the weather against us and a ground storm challenging the racers,” Dixon said.
Race champions Tyler Aklestad, 34 from Palmer, and Nick Oldstad, 37 from Wasilla, were celebrating finishing almost as much as winning, something both men had done several times before but always with different partners.
The 2020 race once again proved the value of the team requirement. When someone broke down or got busted up, there was always someone there to help.
And in extreme cold, as Hewitt observed, everything breaks.
Fortunately the weather had warmed somewhat by late February when the human-powered competitors in the ITI headed north from Knik, a onetime port a little south of Big Lake.
It didn’t matter.
While having thrown extreme cold and wind at the Iron Dog, Mother Nature reserved a storm of snow for the ITI. A race that has come to be dominated by fat-tired cyclists who can pedal the 350 miles from Knik to McGrath in under 48 hours, the 2020 race turned into competition to see who was best at bike pushing or grinding along in a low gear at 4 mph.
Behind him, people were getting lost in the blowing snow of the not-so-Happy River valley high in the Alaska Range, dodging moose that didn’t want to wade into the four-feet snow on either side of the trail,and in the case of 57-year-old cyclist Cheryl Wallace from Boulder, Colo. being stomped by one. She had to be evacuated.
Refsnider later told a publicist for the bike-parts company which sponsors him that it had been a grueling battle to the finish with former champion Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks and regular contender Clinton Hodges from Anchorage to see who would hit McGrath first.
“At times, two or three of us moved together through particularly taxing sections – miles of unrideable drifts and through heavy winds and occasional zero visibility in the mountains,” he said. “And at other times, we were strung out over a few miles, all in pursuit of one another and pushing hard at a whopping 5 or 6 mph.”
It was tough enough that a number of the riders planning on doing the ITI 1,000 all the way to Nome – including past winner Jay Cable– decided to bail out at McGrath.
A handful of others, however, pushed on as the dog race soon to come geared up to take a licking.
Seventy-nine-year-old musher Jim Lanier, who fought an uphill battle just to get into the race, was the first to face big trouble.
After becoming one of the subjects of a dramatic 2018 rescue on the Bering Sea coast, Lanier was told by Iditaord officials that he couldn’t run the race again unless he requalified by completing a number of lesser races beforehand.
That order was unprecedented, but Lanier responded by showing the Iditarod he could do what race officials didn’t think could be done. When he finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada in 2019 – a race some think harder than the Iditarod – he demonstrated he was still tough enough for The Last Great Race in 2020.
When even that wasn’t enough to satisfy Iditarod officials, he completed the two, 300-mile qualifying races they demanded he finish as well. At that point, Iditarod finally gave in.
Unfortunately, 2020 turned out a bad year to get lucky.
Just 150 miles into the Iditarod, Lanier’s team headed out into the windy Happy River valley where so many ITI racers had gotten into trouble, and there it stalled.
When a satellite tracking device made it clear the team wasn’t moving, Steve Perrin from Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge was sent out into the storm to search for the elder musher.
“With the wind chill out there right now, you get frostbite pretty darn quick,” Perrins told Anchorage’s KTUU-TV. “I was getting cold just driving out there (on the snowmachine) to go get him. You definitely need the right gear and even if you have it, it can be dangerous.”
Lanier was fine, but cold, when found. With the dog team refusing to go north on the trail, however, Perrins loaded Lanier on the snowmachine and hauled him back to the lodge while a race official got on the runners of Lanier’s dog team and followed.
Lanier became the first musher to drop out of the race, but he would have plenty of company before it was over. By Saturday night, more than 40 percent of the field – 23 of 57 mushers had quit or been withdrawn.
Quince Mountain, the event’s first publicly transgender musher, saw his Iditarod dream cut down in the coastal village of Unalakaleet. When race officials couldn’t talk the then last-place musher into scratching, they ordered him out of the competition for falling too far behind the competition.
It was an usually tough year. Only 13 of 52 mushers, or 25 percent, dropped out in 2019, 22 percent in 2018, 11 percent in 2017, and 16 percent in 2016. The long term average is closer to 20 percent.
To find a race when so many dropped out, one must go all the way back to the cold, old ’80s. Twenty-four from a field of 80 were out before Nome in 1980.
While the cold, wind and snow made things tough for Iditarod mushers at the start, it was warm, wind and snow that made things tough at the end. Nic Petit got lost in a whiteout ground storm going over Little McKinley – a landmark, 1,000 foot high saddle on the ridge which rises between the villages of Elim on the Bering Sea and Golovin at the head of Golovin Bay.
“The winds were horrible up there,” texted John Peterson, one of a pair of snowmachiners from Golovin sent out to rescue Petit. “Trail conditions were horrible. Trail markers were covered.
“Glad we got to him and brought him to the shelter cabin.”
Two days after the Petit rescue, the Alaska National Guard in Nome dispatched a helicopter to rescue three more mushers from slush just 25 miles from the finish line after they pushed an SOS button on a GPS signalling device.
A search and rescue “team found the mushers at the Solomon River mouth,” the Nome Nugget reported. “…One sled was stuck in the overflow (water); the dogs were on the eastern side of the river and rested on dry ground; and out of the wet hole. The other two teams were still on the western side of the river and hunkered down there.”
The newspaper said that “southerly winds caused significant overflow (water) along the coast and river mouths, destroying the trail and turning it into treacherous wet holes and sections of deep overflow. The three (mushers) left White Mountain and encountered significant overflow in the creeks that run like veins through the Topkok Hills.”
South of Nome, the winds also caused havoc on Golovin and Norton bays. The ITI called home eight competitors on the trail south of Norton Bay after discovering the “storm caused water levels to surge 3 to 6 feet above the normal high tide line in the Norton Sound…Those surges created cracks in the sea ice, pushed water on top of the ice through those cracks and broke shore-fast ice loose on the coast. As a result, all routes over the Norton Bay from Shaktoolik to Koyuk are impassable due to open water or overflow and no consistent overland trails between the villages has been created this winter.”
North of Norton Bay, three ITI competitors and the last of the Iditarod mushers – now known as the Elim 11 after spending more than 24 hours in that village – were pressing on toward Nome via an old trail that bypasses the normal route across Golovin Bay.
The dog drivers appeared unbowed by the weather or the COVID-19 threat that led the village of Shaktoolik to relocate the Iditarod checkpoint and sparked a national campaign encouraging social distancing to try to slow what has become a global pandemic.
Correction: This is edited version of the early story. It was changed to reflect that in addition to completing the Yukon Quest, 79-year-old Jim Lanier completed two, 300-mile qualifying races before the 2020 Iditarod.