ROHN — Faced with the prospect of a soggy dunking, teamwork got some back-of-the-pack Iditarod mushers to this remote, tropical island-themed checkpoint Tuesday afternoon.
Open water and ice marked portions of the 35 miles of trail between the Rainy Pass and Rohn checkpoints, which took mushers and their sled dog teams down the notorious Dalzell Gorge — marred by scores of dog teams that had already traveled the route.
"Normally I like traveling alone, but this is a new trail with lots of hazards," said Kristin Knight Pace, a 32-year-old rookie from Healy.
Wading through water
Pace paired with second-time Iditarod musher Ryne Olson, 27, of Two Rivers, to cross open water at Happy River, some 10 miles out of the Rainy Pass checkpoint.
"It was like a knee-deep summertime running river," Pace said. She pulled into the Rohn checkpoint with her arms spread wide into the air in celebration and parked her sled dog team next to Olson's.
Then she joined a small group of mushers who swapped stories about their journeys to the checkpoint, where volunteers had set up an inflatable palm tree and dressed a tree stump in a hula skirt, Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. The checkpoint isn't much more than a public cabin with a few scattered tents set up. Years ago, most mushers took their 24-hour layovers in Rohn, attracted to the peace and quiet of the remote spot at the foot of the Alaska Range. Today, most go hundreds of miles down the trail before stopping, so they have more energy for the second half of the race.
Pace said she and Olson became fast friends after running the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race together. They exchanged text messages before the Iditarod start and decided to run together again, this time to Nome. Traveling with someone else means help is never far, Pace said.
"It's knowing that, 'OK, if I eat it on the Happy River steps, Ryne might be right in front of me," she said. "Or if she has some kind of leader issues, I can pass her and lead her team with my dogs."
Olson last ran the Iditarod in 2012 with a puppy team from the kennel of mushing couple Aliy Zirkle, a three-time Iditarod runner-up, and Allen Moore. This year, she's running dogs from her own kennel and still feels like a rookie.
Early Tuesday morning, she and her dog team pulled up to the open water first. Her lead dogs turned around. Olson said she has a few dogs in heat, so a tangle could become a problem.
"I grabbed the mass of them — like 15 dogs — and dragged them all in a ball across the creek," she said. "All the while trying to not get my three girls pregnant."
Olson said she waited as Pace led her team through the water, several dogs at a time. Then 50-year-old British musher Kim Franklin showed up, and her dogs didn't want to cross either. So Pace went back and helped Franklin with her team as Olson held the dogs.
Everyone made to the other side, though water soaked through Pace's boots. She took them off and wore her soggy wool boots through the Dalzell Gorge. By the time Pace reached Rohn, they were "blocks of ice," she said
But at the checkpoint, Franklin came over with a big thank you and an offer: Did Pace want the waterproof boots on her feet? Franklin had another pair.
"Are you sure you don't need them?" Pace said. Franklin assured her she didn't.
Loose dogs and melted straws
Iditarod musher Jim Lanier lost his dog team when his sled tipped near the end of the Dalzell Gorge after a rough run. Lanier, 75, wore a helmet, knee pads and padding that went over his shoulders and around his chest to avoid the inevitable blows of a rough stretch of trail.
"Right toward the end where you cross the ice bridges, that was horrible," Lanier said. "It was just slam, bam, thank you ma'am the whole way."
When his sled tipped, Lanier's dogs ran out onto the Tatina River, standing on thin ice, surrounded by flowing water. He said he called his team back and they "tiptoed around" and returned, but the sled remained on the ice. Two mushers, who Lanier said he didn't know, showed up. One helped hold the dog team while the other helped Lanier pull in the sled.
"I can't thank them enough," he said.
Meanwhile, rookie Noah Pereira, 19, sat nearby, slurping down a fruit cup. He said he didn't plan to race with anyone, though his path seemed to align with that of Alan Eischens. Eischens, 56, tore part of the handlebar from his sled during his rugged trip into Rohn.
When asked what happened, Pereira yelled over amid laughter: "He doesn't know how to drive is what happened." Eischens laughed too, and said a bolt got loose while going through the gorge.
Pereira said parts of the gorge had 3 feet of snow on both sides of a trail not much wider than a sled. But that also meant he couldn't tip over there.
"It's like training wheels for your sled," he said.
Part of Pereira's brake broke, so he had trouble stopping. That may not have mattered, he said, because mushers who traveled the path earlier tore a trench in the middle of the path with their brakes. The trench filled with dirty snow.
One tip Pereira said he learned his rookie year: When defrosting your Capri Sun in a pot of hot water, remember to detach the straw. That will melt, he said.
This year, Pereira said he is taking the Iditarod slow — like a camping trip.
"I'm just taking my time," he said.