The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has reached Day 7 and the pace continues to quicken. A lead pack has formed, and mushers are leaving the Yukon River for the long, difficult trek over Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.
Brent "Stealth Mode" Sass has clearly defined himself as the race leader, but he is chased by a group of hungry mushers who want an Iditarod win just as badly — and who may be in a better position to do so.
Sass blew through Ruby, the first Yukon River checkpoint, Friday afternoon and camped 10 miles outside the village on the river. Electing to camp on the Yukon is rare due to significantly lower temperatures on the river compared to checkpoints that sit up above on the banks. The enormity of the Yukon River also lends itself to fierce winds with no place to hide. However, with this year's unusual warm weather and little chance of a new storm blowing in, mushers can adapt their strategies and camp on the Yukon River as they see fit.
Sass on Saturday continued his epic push that started more than 300 miles earlier just outside of Rohn. After a four-hour rest on the Yukon, he left for Galena about 7 a.m. Sass had yet to take his mandatory eight-hour rest on the Yukon but wanted to maintain the lead he'd created, so he barely stopped in Galena and pushed all the way to Nulato.
Call this decision Sass' "make-it-or-break-it" move. This year's lengthier trail on the Yukon River, circumventing open water near Bishop Rock on the river, combined with running through the heat of the day, amounted to a long 13-hour run by the time Sass reached Nulato, where he quickly declared his eight-hour break.
Before long, Sass was regretting the move. Former Iditarod runner-up and Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle, on the trail reporting for the Iditarod Trail Committee, found Sass between Galena and Nulato, where the musher said: "This was a mistake."
Sass reached Nulato nearly eight hours after leaving Galena. That was the slowest run time of the top 20 racers, and I'm sure Sass was as excited to see the lights of Nulato as the residents were to see his headlamp coming up the river.
When Sass pulled into the small village, it seemed as if the entire community of 336 was there to greet him. Unfortunately that sense of excitement was short lived. By the time Aliy Zirkle (the closest musher behind Sass) pulled in more than six hours later, any excitement was replaced by grief and sorrow due to the snowmachine incident that left one dog dead and others injured.
Sass was the first musher to leave Nulato at 3:43 a.m. Saturday, exactly eight hours after his arrival. He was followed a minute later by speedy Mitch Seavey, who took advantage of the mild weather on the Yukon and decided to camp short of Nulato for three hours.
Seavey spent just less than four hours on the river and was first to Kaltag, where he was presented with the Fish First award presented by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Because Seavey hadn't taken his eight-hour rest yet, he had to sit in Kaltag until 3:41 p.m. and watch teams leapfrog him.
Sass arrived in Kaltag 32 minutes after Seavey, most likely feeling the effects of his long 13-hour push. He spent very little time packing up his gear and straw before leaving for the Bering Sea town of Unalakleet, some 85 miles away. Expect Sass to stop at Tripod Flats Shelter Cabin en route and spend some time resting in the hot afternoon sun.
Sass's move to blow through Kaltag was mimicked by Zirkle and Dallas Seavey. Zirkle now trails Sass by 2 hours and 33 minutes, while Dallas Seavey is 3:04 back.
Zirkle's run from Nulato to Kaltag was only two minutes faster than Sass's.
Beware the monster
But beware: Dallas Seavey has now "unleashed his monster," as he likes to put it — a dog team trained to come on strong in the final third of the race. Seavey ran between checkpoints faster then both teams in front of him and is quickly chewing up the trail behind Zirkle and Sass.
If all three of these teams decide on four-hour rests at Tripod Flats, look for Sass to arrive in Unalakleet around midnight Saturday followed most likely by Dallas Seavey around 1:30 a.m. and Zirkle around 2:30 a.m.
If Dallas's dad decides to run nonstop coming off his eight-hour break in Kaltag, he most likely will arrive very close to Zirkle.
Wade Marrs has put in a very strong push to stay at the front and he rounds out the top five.
Jake Berkowitz is a three-time Iditarod finisher, including an eighth-place finish in 2013, when he was awarded the Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award. He has finished the Yukon Quest twice, both times in fourth place, and won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012. This is his first year of Iditarod commentary for Alaska Dispatch News. Look for his commentaries daily during the race.