Mackey takes charge of Iditarod

Two-time champ and chase pack battle brutal conditions

March 16, 2009 

Update: Lance Mackey left Koyuk just before 9 p.m. Monday on his way to Nome. Sebastian Schnuelle arrived just before 6 p.m. and stayed in the village, as did John Baker who made it in at about 9:30 p.m. Behind them five mushers remained on the wind-blown trail across Norton Bay from Shaktoolik.

High winds and bitter cold were brutalizing the leaders of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday night as Lance Mackey continued an assault on his third straight victory.

Though Mackey and his team were in control of the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, the driver didn't appear to be having much fun.

When he pulled into the wind-pounded village of Shaktoolik tight against the shore of Norton Sound, howling winds were blowing spindrift snow across the trail, and the coats the 38-year-old musher had put on his dogs to protect them against the wind were snapping in the blow.

Buried in several layers of clothes beneath a huge, white anorak, all that could be seen of Mackey was his nose, part of one eye and some frost stuck to his mustache. A fur ruff that rimmed his parka was pulled in tight to try to save his face from 55-degrees-below-zero windchill that can freeze skin in seconds.

A villager who greeted Mackey with a check-in sheet joked that it had been a while since mushers had encountered the fabled Shaktoolik winds.

"I wasn't asking for it,'' Mackey said. "We've been really lucky.''

Despite the harsh conditions, his 15 dogs seem undaunted. They left Shaktoolik into a hellish headwind and still marched across the windswept ice of Norton Bay for about 45 miles to Koyuk at an average speed of better than 8 mph.

Mackey gave them a long rest there as the teams behind struggled. The dogs of four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park balked at leaving Shaktoolik. At least twice King had to swap out lead dogs in an effort to find one willing to take the team into the teeth of the blow.

Behind King, John Baker from Kotzebue, a nine-time top-10 finisher, stopped his team and waited, apparently unable or unwilling to head out toward the Norton Bay ice.

"The coast is giving us a little excitement, a little weather,'' King had joked before heading out into the blow on Monday. "Nothing the coast hasn't seen before, but certainly something to talk about today.''

For some, though, it sounded a lot worse than just something to talk about.

The Iditarod's Bruce Lee was reporting that Hugh Neff from Skagway suffered serious frostbite on his face on the trail between Unalkaleet and Shaktoolik.

Neff, Lee reported on, was "working with local medical folks and Iditarod staff so that he doesn't continue to do damage to his skin. This is a bad break for Hugh, because the winds are forecast to continue."

Neff spent five hours in Shatoolik, then decided to press on. Frostbite might be the least of the problems for the runner-up in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race that finished a couple weeks ago in Fairbanks.

"I've got what I call the Quest cough,'' he said in Unalakleet. "I think it's pneumonia or something, just horrible, started a week before the (Iditarod) race. I was on antibiotics and now the vet (veterinary) staff is getting me stuff to use.

"It's a really deep lung cough, nasal clogging. But I don't feel sick. I feel great actually. I wonder why? It's annoying more than anything. Every once out of a blue moon I'll start coughing uncontrollably for five or 10 minutes. (But) I'm not getting anybody else sick because nobody's been around me.''

A Native of Chicago and a one-time fan of the NBA Bulls, Neff did, however, joke that being sick might be a good thing. Basketball star Michael Jordan's best games came when he was sick, Neff said.

Unfortunately, by nightfall Monday, Neff appeared to be in position to infect a bunch of other mushers. Iditarod photographer Jeff Schultz reported that just before dark he and an Iditarod pilot spotted a half-dozen teams holed up at a shelter cabin in the lee of Little Mountain near Island Point about 15 miles out of Shaktoolik. That is the last place to find shelter before a 45-mile crossing on the flat, windswept ice of Norton Bay.

The only ones across the bay by nightfall Monday were Mackey and Sebastain Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, the winner of the Yukon Quest. Schnuelle made it into Kokyuk just before 6 p.m. Mackey, who had been there since noon, had yet to leave. He was still there at 8 p.m.

It was the longest break he and his team had taken since an eight-hour mandatory stop back at the village of Anvik on the Yukon. It was an unusually long break to be taking at this point as mushers hurry along the coast toward the mandatory, eight-hour layover at White Mountain only about 100 miles on.

Shortly before 9 p.m., the checker at the Koyuk community center was reached by telephone and reported Mackey was getting ready to leave, but that weather was nasty.

Winds of 20 to 25 mph out of the north were stirring soft, loose snow into ground blizzard conditions, he said, and the temperature was about 20 degrees below zero.

"But (Mackey's) getting ready to go,'' the checker added.

"Unless something happens to Lance, then there's definitely no chance of catching him, honestly,'' Baker had observed earlier in the day. "He would have to have a problem."

Mackey still appeared to be on his way to victory late Monday, but this one was clearly not going to come easily.

Find Craig Medred online at or call 257-4588.

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