Iditarod is no catwalk for rookie DeNure

Kevin Klott

TAKOTNA -- Zoya DeNure holds a Phillips head screwdriver in Thursday's mid-afternoon sun, thinking it's the right tool to fix her busted-up dog sled, tucked among the log cabins high on the bluffs of the Takotna River.

John Schandelmeier, a fomer Yukon Quest champion following his wife on the trail, kneels down to check the damage on the sled that didn't make it through the notorious Dalzell Gorge in one piece Tuesday.

But he leaves the sled for DeNure to fix.

Years ago, the woman from Paxson would have had no clue. She was a model in Europe, smiling for cameras on runways and partying with celebrities. That life got old, though, and she sought different adventures in Alaska.

She found them here on the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail. Life is much different these days. When DeNure first arrived in Alaska six years ago, she didn't know how to start a campfire. Now she's driving dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"Is this going to be OK?" asks the 29-year-old native of Wisconsin about the broken stanchion.

Schandelmeier doesn't answer.

"Wow, it's coming apart," she says, picking at the frayed wood of the vertical bar that helps keep the sled upright.

By Iditarod rules, Schandelmeier can't help his wife. Besides, as an Iditarod rookie, DeNure needs to learn how to mend her broken sled -- and do it quickly.

It's 2 p.m., a balmy 30 degrees and she's planning to leave for Ophir by nightfall when the temperature drops into the 20s.

"I need to get some water going," DeNure says, feeling rushed as she thinks of all the dog chores that need to be done.

Minor jobs around camp are important to running the 1,100-mile race across Alaska. But fixing her broken ride and changing the runners is top priority if she expects to finish.

Reaching Nome was her main thought Tuesday when she negotiated the harrowing trail that snakes through the Dalzell Gorge with a broken left stanchion and badly bent brake pad.

"My dogs were having a great time," she said. "But my sled paid for it."

DeNure was tossed around like a rag doll when she hit a stump and crashed. She recovered, but her sled didn't.

For the next three hours, she tightly gripped her wobbly handlebar on a wild ride into the Rohn checkpoint.

"There was so much stuff -- lots of hitting, crunching," she said. "What a wild ride.

"I couldn't steer and everything was coming apart. I couldn't use the brake or the pad because they were bent."

A volunteer checker at Rohn drilled a six-inch piece of hockey stick to her sled as a temporary splice. That was good enough to get her though the next 150 miles to reach this checkpoint, but it would never last the 680 miles left before Nome.

"You just deal with what you have," DeNure said.

A few front-runners agreed the first 150 miles of trail leading into Rainy Pass was a doggie highway. But those in the back of the pack found the aftermath of dozens of dog teams carving deeper and deeper gooves in the trail.

How bad was it?

Just ask Gene Smith, a 64-year-old Washington state musher who reported trenches three feet deep.

"It was as high as your sled," Smith said. But the good news was "you couldn't tip over."

Out of the trenches and in open areas, however, he tipped his sled 40 to 50 times from Rainy Pass to Rohn. At least, the former rodeo cowboy acknowledged, it wasn't as bad as the long fall from a bucking bronc.

Smith arrived in Takotna around 5 a.m. Thursday. Without the energy to search for the musher's sleeping quarters up the road, he crawled upstairs at the checkpoint and slept next to media crews on the wood floor.

"It'll be over some day," Smith said. "That's why we're here. To see how many days it takes to get over the pain."

His back and shoulders ache, but he was happy to be here for his 24-hour layover. He ate a hearty meal of hot pancakes, eggs sunny-side up and hash browns. Maybe all that good food fueled him with optimism.

"I started out wanting to be top 30," Smith said. "At Rohn I think I changed it to top 60."

Find Daily News reporter Kevin Klott at or 257-4335.

Iditarod Notes

• Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., scratched Thursday morning in McGrath because some of his 14 dogs were sick. Barron, 36, has finished seven Iditarods with a best of eighth place in 2006. He was 14th last year.

• Kim Franklin of England was withdrawn from the race by Iditarod officials on Thursday. Franklin told officials that two of her dogs chewed through their ganglines and got away during an evening run from Rainy Pass to Rohn.

She couldn't find the animals and continued to Rohn, where she was withdrawn because of a race rule that says mushers must arrive at a checkpoint with the same number of dogs they have in harness when they leave the previous checkpoint.

Officals said the two dogs were later located near Rainy Pass and flown to Anchorage.

• Cliff Roberson scratched in Rohn after injuring himself lighting a propane stove. "The cooker blew up in his face, and burned both of his eyes. He said it blasted so hard it almost knocked him over," said Suzanne Roberson, who spoke to her husband by satellite phone Wednesday afternoon. "If he went back out and completed the race, he'd probably end up with permanent damage to his eyes."

The neurosurgeon from Corvallis, Ore., was running his fourth Iditarod. He was 28th in 1995.

WHO IS $3,000 RICHER?: DeeDee Jonrowe was the first into the halfway point of Cripple on Thursday after Paul Gebhardt thought he had missed the checkpoint and doubled back.