Alaska News

Fierce cold, punchy trail stress some Iditarod mushers and their dogs

RUBY -- Kotzebue musher Chuck Schaeffer keeps it short when it comes to words. He focuses on tending to his dogs, seldom striking up conversations with nearby mushers.

But on Thursday morning, as he watched his dogs rest on a hill above the Yukon River, he was feeling the cold, even shivering now and then. He didn't hesitate to remind people.

"Can you make it warm up?" he asked an Alaska Dispatch News reporter, pointing toward the clear blue sky. While temperatures hovered near minus 10 in the Yukon River village of about 150 people, Schaeffer and other mushers were still having flashbacks from the night before, when even lower temperatures, compounded by a "blowhole," made for a fierce wind chill.

Scott Smith said the wind, the cold and a blazing aurora over the Yukon River early Thursday combined for a memorable night.

"It was trademark Iditarod," he said.

When asked how fast he thought the wind was blowing, Smith yelled the question across the Ruby dog lot to veteran racer Matt Failor.

"Oh, I don't know," Failor said. "Maybe 150 miles an hour."

Hurricane-force winds were unlikely, but Smith said they were enough to seriously chill mushers who dealt with dog teams trudging along a soft, punchy trail. Montana racer Jessie Royer said it seemed as if her dogs were "swimming" down the trail.

Soft trail is what made two-time champion Mitch Seavey decide to take his 24-hour mandatory rest in Ruby. Seavey said his team is used to going fast but the soft trail "stressed" the dogs.

Seavey said he had originally planned to stop in Galena, 50 miles downriver from Ruby. He said the long stop in Ruby was one he had considered before the race, noting that the village is about 350 miles from the start, roughly the same distance as Takotna, where Seavey typically takes his 24-hour break on the usual race trail.

Seavey was among a handful of racers electing to take a long break in Ruby, including 2011 champion John Baker. Other racers appeared to be waiting, an expected strategy since many of the difficult obstacles of traditional trail -- including crossing the Alaska Range -- don't exist on this new northern route. But even with the missing mountains, Seavey thought the trail was a challenge.

"That run on the river, to me, was as difficult as the run would be from, say, Finger Lake to Rohn or Rohn to Nikolai," he said. "… We didn't have a mountain range, but we had a soft punchy trail, so 24 in the same place."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.