His face scarred from frostbite, Skagway's Hugh Neff on Thursday crossed the Nome finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Thursday to claim the 15th position.
A one-time front runner whose cheeks were seared by wind and cold along the Bering Sea coast, Neff declared the 2009 Iditarod "definitely the most brutal'' sled dog race in which he'd ever been involved. It was a telling statement from the veteran of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, to Fairbanks.
Temperatures along the Quest course regularly drop to 50- or 60-degrees-below, but Neff said the windchill caused by 30 to 40 mph winds and 30- to 40-below temperatures during this year's Iditarod was far worse.
"The wind has just been ferocious everyday, everywhere,'' he told an Iditarod Insider videographer. "I learned my lesson, cover up well or you'll have a little'' cold injury.
Nearly all the mushers arriving in Nome in the wake of champion Lance Mackey from Fairbanks told horror stories about dealing with the wind, the cold and the blowing snow that caused ground blizzard conditions. Four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park, one of the early race leaders, actually turned his team around on the Bering Sea coast at one point to retreat to Shaktoolik.
The 53-year-old King ended up finishing 12th. Just ahead of him was 59-year-old Sonny Lindner from Two Rivers, who ran his first Iditarod in 1978. The duo showed the old guys can still compete, but the Iditarod was seeing something of a changing of the guard this year.
Fifty-year-old Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, a past winner of the Quest who looks at least 10 years younger than his age, was the oldest musher in the top-10. Gone from that bunch were regular top-10 finishers, King; 51-year-old, four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake, 18th this year; and 52-year-old, two-time runner-up Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, 16th this year.
Forty-nine-year old Mitch Seavey from Sterling, the 2004 champ, did manage to hang on to fourth-place behind 46-year-old John Baker from Kotzebue and 33-year-old Sebastain Schnuelle from Whitehorse, but Seavey had 32-year-old Cim Smyth from Big Lake and son Dallas Seavey nipping at his heels.
Twenty-one-year-old Dallas Seavey was sixth in his first real Iditarod race. Twice before, he has gone up the trail, but on both occasions he was merely taking Seavey-family puppy teams on training runs. The goal for those "races,'' in which Dallas finished 41st and 51st, was not to compete, but to get as many young dogs as possible to Nome.
This year, the younger Seavey held back for most of the earlier going too, and then began racing as the Iditarod turned toward the coast. He passed a lot of teams in the stretch run to finish sixth and help bring the Seavey kennel a combined payday that topped Mackey's winnings.
Rounding out the top-10 behind Dallas were 33-year-old Aaron Burmeister from Nenana, one of the big surprises in this year's race; 32-year-old Jessie Royer from Fairbanks, and 33-year-old Ramey Smyth from Willow. Ramey Smyth has been a regular top-10 Iditarod finisher for years, and brother Cim has lurked just below the top-10 in the past several races.
Royer, a veteran of eight Iditarods, this year matched her previous best finish from back in 2005. Like many, she noted the sometimes insane weather conditions. She got hit by a ground blizzard near the finish that blew so much snow across the trail she said she couldn't see the dogs in front of her half the time.
Other teams that had finished in Nome by Thursday night included DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow, 13th, Ken Anderson from Fairbanks, 14th and Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers, 17th.
About 30 teams were still on the trail. At the very back of the pack were rookies Alan Peck from Eagle River and Timothy Hunt from Marquette, Mich. They were in Kaltag, still about 350 miles from Nome, preparing for the crossing of the Kaltag Portage to the coast.
The number of teams dropping out had grown to a dozen.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.
By CRAIG MEDRED