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Exorcising Iditarod Trail demons through Kaltag Portage

Suzanna Caldwell
Jake Berkowitz in the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
One of Jeff King's dogs patiently waits for lunch. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King's wheel dogs wait patiently for a meal and a bed of straw. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle makes food for her team in Unalakleet. March 10, 2013
Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrives in the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Ray Redington Jr. beds his dogs in Unalakleet. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom sets his wake up alarm inside the Unalakleet checkpoint. He arrived in 7th place, far ahead of any other rookie. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle struggles to get her wet boots off in the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A calm and collected Jeff King studies the race standings inside the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King, foreground, and Jake Berkowitz mush into Unalakleet in a snowstorm. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King charges into Unalakleet. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jake Berkowitz mushing into Unalakleet. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A dog in Mitch Seavey's team sleeps in a light snow in the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King in the Unalakleet checkpoint. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King tending to his dogs in Unalakleet. March 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

KOYUK -- For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have used to Kaltag Portage as a vital link from rivers of Interior Alaska to the Bering Sea coast.

Russian fur traders discovered it in the mid-19th century, and used it as a vital link to their trading posts in the Interior. If the hills could talk, they probably would have stories.

“You get to the top of some of those passes, and you know some weird stuff went on,” said 2012 runner-up Aliy Zirkle. “Like, you take this woman and I'll take your seal skin, or you take this little kid and I'll take your moose meat. You know that stuff happened.”

While the stories 150 years ago might be questionable and different, for mushers traveling the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race this year, the stories are just as compelling. Last year, the section of trail that crosses through gentle rolling hills and spruce trees before hitting the icy coastline of Western Alaska was a turning point of the race.

In retrospect for Zirkle, the Kaltag Portage was where she began making her first mistakes, just over 600 miles down the Iditarod Trail. She doesn't remember chunks of last year's race, but she came into Unalakleet in first place, exhausted and struggling. Soon after leaving, 2012 champ Dallas Seavey overtook Zirkle and never relinquished the lead. 

This year, Zirkle was still groggy coming into the community of about 700 people in fifth place. She seem frustrated over her performance, noting that both her A and B plans hadn't worked. She had camped about 10 miles outside of Kaltag, hoping it would push the leaders out of the last Yukon River checkpoint. Instead, the long slog down the river tired her dogs, slowing travel.

“I was hoping to get here in the lead,” she said Sunday. “But the trail was too challenging for Plan A.”

Volunteers at the checkpoint kept telling Zirkle that she looked better than last year as she snacked on an over-easy egg and took voracious bites of a cheeseburger. Now one week in, the fatigue of the race was apparent. Her face was wind-blown and red as she showed off dime-size blisters in her right palm, the result of ski poling hard in soggy weather. She said her feet hadn't been dry in three days.

Zirkle wasn't the only one feeling the effects of the long race to the coast. Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz's team trotted into the checkpoint in early afternoon under gray skies and light snow. Berkowitz's face was puffy and red, his lips chapped and peeling. He said he was sick and so were his dogs – dealing with diarrhea and vomiting as they worked their way down the trail.

Last year, Berkowitz had to scratch in Unalakleet after slicing his hand open while trying to cut fish on the journey. In Kaltag Saturday, he had no bad memories lingering from that section of trail, saying he couldn't even remember where the accident had happened. His thoughts were only toward the future, looking forward to making his third trip along the Norton Sound coast.

But a hard, punchy stretch of trail had dampened his mood.

“I don't feel that great,” he said in Unalakleet. “I definitely need better sprits.”

He planned take a good rest in the checkpoint before heading back on the trail, hoping for a good run – though he had no intention of chasing anyone out of town. “I'm still racing, I just need to get in a better mindset,” he said.

Jeff King's mood was focused and joyful, giving hugs to old friends in between feeding snacks to his dogs. Last year King ran into trouble 12 miles outside of Unalakleet, when his team quit on him, with no energy left to travel in the bitter cold and wind. It was the four-time champion's first scratch in 22 Iditarods.

King said he watched his dogs closely as he passed by the brushy area where they stopped last year, checking to see if they would look into the brush. The dogs never even slowed down. “No one remembered it but me,” he said.

Instead they loped into Unalakleet in third place, lapping up food before curling into piles of straw for a few hours of rest. King mulled over stat sheets in Unalakleet. His run was the fastest of the first 15 mushers to the coast, even with a feeding, he noted. “It gives me tremendous satisfaction to know that what I've been doing for my dog team is right,” he said. “Anything else and it wouldn't have fit my style.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com