NIKOLAI -- Call 'em cowboys, not dog mushers.
Snow is what you expect during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome. But all through the night and day on Tuesday -- for 50 horrendous miles out of Rohn -- mushers ran their dog teams over nothing but dirt, glare ice and even some mud.
The snow didn't return until halfway through the long 90-mile stretch between Rohn and Nikolai. What's more, mushers were pelted with grit-laced winds.
"It was like a dust storm," said Mitch Seavey, the sixth musher to pull into Nikolai, the first Native village along the 1,100-mile race to Nome. "I almost wanted to pull out my bandanas like the cowboys do."
Experienced mushers said this is the worst they've ever seen the section of trail outside of Rohn known as the Buffalo Tunnels for the bison that hang out there and the stunted spruce that squeeze in tight on both sides. Mushers had to maneuver sleds over tree stumps, logs and tussocks. They darted between trees. Sometimes they made it; other times they didn't.
In Nikolai, mushers shared horror stories about their crashes and fixed broken sleds in the dog lot near the school. Other mushers switched to new sleds or made phone calls to have replacement sleds flown into Nikolai. After breaking several stanchions on his sled, Tim Osmar of Ninilchik had a new sled flown from McGrath to Nikolai.
Mushers are permitted two replacement sleds during the race.
"It was horrible," said Hans Gatt, an Austrian musher running the Iditarod for the fourth time. "I can feel it from my head to my toes. It was the wildest ride yet I've had in my career."
DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow had one of the most spectacular crashes.
"I flipped completely over," Jonrowe said as she fed and watered her dogs after pulling in at 12:56 p.m., her powder-blue parka streaked with dirt.
"Boy, that went bad," she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
All the bumping over bare ground broke loose a bolt on Jonrowe's sled that held her brake in place. It hung down and snagged on a stump or tussock near Egypt Mountain, about 24 miles out of Rohn.
The sled stopped abruptly, but Jonrowe kept going. She flew over the driving bar onto the front of her sled bag and broke one of the sled stanchions during the fall.
Paul Gebhardt had a similar accident after losing one of his sled runners and temporarily putting on a new one with hose clamps. He said both the brake and hose clamps kept catching on stumps and other obstacles.
"It was not a picnic, that's for sure," he said. "The rookies will get their money's worth."
Charlie Boulding also took a spill bad enough to flip his sled. Actually, he took too many spills to remember.
"I quit counting after three or four," he said.
Boulding came into Nikolai with a gash over his left eye from getting jabbed by a tree limb. During one of his falls, he broke a wooden bar on the bottom of his sled. He was lashing cord around it Tuesday afternoon, hoping it would hold the rest of the way to Nome.
Some mushers made temporary sled fixes on the trail.
Jon Little of Kasilof pulled into Nikolai with all three stanchions on the left side busted. He fixed one with part of the rubber from his brake, borrowing tools from fellow musher John Baker of Kotzebue.
Jonrowe said after her big fall, she fell again and again -- being dragged several times behind her dog team. She undid the dog's tug lines so they couldn't pull so hard, but it didn't seem to matter. With better traction, the dogs could motor.
"Once I got dragged on my side on glare ice," she said. "The dogs were just picking up speed."
Ramey Smyth also took a spectacular spill. He said the sled flipped one and a half times and he tumbled with it, all the while hanging onto the driving bow.
Mushers try to never, ever, let go of their sleds -- or they might not see them again.
"I never let go," said Doug Swingley. "If I had I would still be there."
Brakes also don't work very well on bare ground. "I couldn't go any slower," Rick Swenson said. "It's pedal to the metal."
At least no dog teams ran into the bison known to roam in the area. But Gebhardt said he smelled them.
"It smelled like a cow yard," he said.
Reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4323.