TAKOTNA -- The movable checkpoint of Cripple may have cost Iditarod musher Paul Gebhardt $3,000 in gold nuggets Wednesday and might also force him to alter his strategy for the rest of the 1,100-mile race.
DeeDee Jonrowe, who left the previous checkpoint of Ophir nearly six hours after Gebhardt, showed up first in Cripple, about 60 miles down the trail, to collect the Dorothy Page Halfway Award of gold from GCI.
She told Iditarod Air Force pilot Bruce Moroney that she passed Gebhardt going the wrong way -- he was headed back toward Ophir.
"Somehow he got turned around, thinking he had passed Cripple," said Moroney, the pilot who also has finished three Iditarods as a musher. "So he turned around and DeeDee held on. DeeDee had no idea she was the first to Cripple. It was really cute."
The mistake is an easy one to make. There is nothing to mark the Cripple checkpoint in the middle of a couple hundred miles of vast, rolling wilderness between the old gold mining town of Ophir, itself largely deserted, and the village of Ruby on the Yukon River.
As a result, the checkpoints end up being placed wherever it is most convenient for Iditarod trail breakers and pilots.
Sometimes, too, snowmobile tracks -- which are really all the Iditarod Trail is in that part of the country -- can end up going wide of the checkpoint.
Combine all of that with a musher's brain fog from lack of sleep, and it's easy to understand how Gebhardt might get confused. Most mushers by this point in the race are only getting a few hours of sleep, if that, per day. Most of the time they are either on the sled riding or tending to their dogs to make sure the animals get enough food, water and the maximum amount of sleep.
Moroney said Gebhardt believes his turnaround on the trail, the trek back toward Ophir and then the reversal again to get to Cripple eight minutes behind Jonrowe might have cost him as much as six hours. Gebhardt was, Moroney added, planning to take his one mandatory 24-hour stop at Ruby on the Yukon but was now talking about changing that strategy and resting in Cripple instead.
Jonrowe was reportedly surprised to be the first one there.
Moroney reported this exchange at the checkpoint:
Jonrowe figured teams would be in Cripple by 6:30 in the morning Thursday. She comes rolling in and everyone is expecting Paul Gebhardt.
"Where the hell did she come from?" one of the checkers said.
"Congratulations, DeeDee, you're the first to Cripple," said another checker.
"What?" she asked. "Where's Paul?"
She had run into Gebhardt running the opposite direction toward Ophir on the trail, but she was convinced the musher was Cim Smyth from Big Lake.
Gebhardt has had trail mishaps before. In 2006, he lost his team on the Farewell Burn and lost precious time trying to catch his dogs.
Daily News outdoors editor Craig Medred contributed to this report.