As the sun broke over the frozen rivers and stunted spruce of a bitterly cold, Interior Alaska, the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race was back underway with nine teams out of the community of McGrath and onto the Iditarod Trail north within an hour of each other.
First in to the Kuskokwim River checkpoint -- 41-year-old Chris Olds from Eagle River and new partner Mike Morgan, 27, from Anchorage -- were second out as the race corrected for the times between teams caused by the two-minute staggered start at Big Lake on Sunday. Olds, a past Iron Dog champ, and new partner Morgan left about 11 a.m. and made it up and over the Alaska Range and into McGrath shortly after 7 p.m.
McGrath, according to the GPS tracking devices on the sleds of Iron Dog racers, is 240 miles from the start line, but the real distance is calculated to be closer to 300 miles. The satellite tracking misses a lot of dips and rises in the trail. Because it only grabs a tracking signal every few minutes, a lot of twist and turns in a sometimes-snaky trail get straightened out as well.
Tanana duo takes charge
Olds and Morgan averaged 45 to 50 mph enroute to the small Bush community of about 350. There they gave up the Iron Dog lead to two racers from an even smaller Bush community.
Leading the race out of McGrath were 30-year-old Arnold Marks Jr. and brother Aaron, 33, from the village of Tanana. Alaska Native men, the Marks brothers are teachers in the community of 230 on the north bank of the Yukon River just downstream from its confluence with the Tanana.
As such, they are heirs to the legacy of the new rural Alaska. Once sled dogs were a way of life there and Native men were a powerful force in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Emmitt Peters of Ruby -- the Iditarod checkpoint toward which the Marks brothers were headed Monday -- won the dog race in 1975 and transformed forever the way the race would be run.
Peters and Native mushers Jerry Riley from Nenana, Ken Chase from Anvik, the late Carl Huntington from Galena and Herbie Nayokpuk – known as the "Shishmaref Cannonball'' -- were, among others, key players in the first decade of the dog race. The cost of dog food eventually put them out of business.
By the time John Baker from Kotzebue became the first Native Alaskan to win the Iditarod in a generation, almost everything had changed.
Snowmachine takes charge
The snowmachine had taken over the Bush and, despite high fuel costs, had proven itself cheaper to run than a dog team and almost as reliable. Rural dog racing held on only among people like Baker, owner of a successful air service, with the money to pursue a sport dominated by a small group of professional mushers living along the Alaska road system. Gone were the amateurs like Peters, once able to contend.
Not so for the Iron Dog. At least a dozen racers of Native or mixed Native-white heritage signed up for this year's race, including 2010 and 2011 champion Tyler Huntington from Galena, an expected contender who is sitting it out after a horrific training accident along the Bering Sea coast about a month ago.
About 24 hours after the race started, three all-rookie teams had scratched -- Ray Chvastasz and Jens Hopson, the Fairbanks duo of Brad Dietrich and Tim Jauhola, and Brian Jurenka of Anchorage and Harold Egan Jr. of Palmer.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com