Iditarod mushers swap survival tales, nurse wounds in Nikolai

NIKOLAI -- After fighting their way down the icy Dalzell Gorge and across the snowless Farewell Burn, a wave of Iditarod mushers hit this checkpoint Tuesday telling tales of survival, not racing.

Some openly criticized the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors' decision to keep the race on its traditional route, rather than move the restart from Willow to Fairbanks and avoid portions of the trail made miserable by mild weather.

Whitehorse musher Hans Gatt, a 12-time Iditarod finisher, said keeping the race on the traditional route was "totally irresponsible."

The problem with the poor trail, the mushers say, is they could not set brakes on the ice and frozen mud well enough to control their sleds as eager dogs pulled them over, through and into the hazards. When their sleds got caught on stumps and rocks, several of them broke their brake.

One of those belonged to Hugh Neff, whose metal brake pedal sheared in half.

"We're going over trees, huge rocks, stumps. It's a mine field out there," Neff said just after arriving in Nikolai.

Said Jeff King, a 22-time race finisher and four-time winner: "It's the roughest I've ever seen."


Many mushers carried wounds from the battle, having slammed their bodies on sleds and, in some cases, on trees and rocks. Some limped from one task to the next in Nikolai, feeding dogs and checking gear.

"They should not send people out there. It's not safe," said four-time finisher and two-time champ Robert Sorlie. "I've never been so scared before in my life."

Mushers Jason Mackey and Rick Casillo echoed the sentiment, both saying "I thought I was going to die."

Others said they did not want to second-guess the trail committee's decision on the route. Race officials said the decision to keep the restart in Willow was based on trail reports two weeks before the race. Warmer weather since then made the trail more dangerous than they had anticipated.

Veterinarians reported 11 dropped dogs in Nikolai late Tuesday after 40 teams had checked in. The only injuries were minor -- sore shoulders and wrists, the vets said.

"It seems like the dogs fared better than the mushers," veterinarian Bruce Nwadike said.

Big Lake's Martin Buser, the early race leader, opted to take his mandatory 24-hour layover in Nikolai, where he tended to an injured ankle. While he and his dogs rested, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers set the pace for the trail leaders -- she was the first to reach Takotna on Tuesday night.

Dallas Seavey of Willow, the 2012 champ and one of the prerace favorites, nearly lost his team on the way to Nikolai when his sled hit a tree about 20 miles out of Rohn and the line connecting most of his team to the sled broke.

"I was doing a good job of dodging trees until that one," he said. "I guess kind of out of instinct I started running and actually caught up with them."

Seavey said the 12 dogs that got away looked stunned that he was running down the trail after them, so they slowed down. But the loose line of dogs sped up when he got close.

"It was kind of a running jump and I actually caught hold of something," Seavey said.

Seavey said it was the worst he'd ever seen the Dalzell Gorge or the Farewell Burn, but he did not want to blame the trail committee for sending the mushers down the trail.

"Obviously somebody had to make the best decision they could. I don't want to go with hindsight," he said.

Girdwood's Nicolas Petit, one of the frontrunners out of Nikolai, sounded more concerned. In the Nikolai school gym, where volunteers served breakfast, Petit went through a list of mushers, naming people he hoped would scratch for their own good.

"I got one pretty busted knee and another pretty sore knee," Petit said. "I don't know when the part that hurt me happened."

As his sled jerked its way to Nikolai, Petit said, he kept banging into it. His handlebar broke at one point, and he had to stop to fix it with two pieces of alder and duct tape.

"You bumping into trees out there?" a kitchen worker asked.


"I mean, the whole forest is out there," Petit said.

"So you're hitting the whole forest?"

"It's hitting me!"

Tok musher Hugh Neff likened the experience to being in an arcade game.

"Pinball!" Petit exclaimed.

Petit was not happy about the route selection. Asked if he thought the worst was behind him, Petit sounded less than trusting in reports he had heard about the trail ahead.

"I'm trusting the Iditarod Trail Committee to give us more crap. Because so far they haven't taken our safety into consideration," he said.

After mushing into Nikolai, Gatt looked like he had just stepped out of a boxing ring. He had flipped his sled, cut his head and scraped his face on a tree. A health aide at the village clinic used glue to patch the cut, he said, and topped the sealed-up wound with a butterfly bandage.


"I've never seen anything like it," 2013 champ Mitch Seavey said. "I've never mushed anything like that in my life. I didn't know we could do that."

When someone told Seavey he didn't look too beat up, he said, "I'm faking it."

Seavey said Dalzell Gorge had been the worst part: "I jokingly say it was a drag, because I went down it on my side for a good part of it."

Like his son, Mitch Seavey didn't sound off about the route decision. He said he trusted the people making the call and that shifting weather conditions were to blame. Workers had clearly put a great deal of effort into improving the trail, he said.

"I believe they made the best decision they could. Things probably changed on 'em," Seavey said. "They're not going to turn a blind eye to musher safety."

Race marshal Mark Nordman said Tuesday night that the Iditarod Trail Committee had seen pictures of the trail and heard reports that convinced them the race could be safely run on the traditional route.

A "tremendous" amount of trail work was done, Nordman said, but higher temperatures in the days before the race melted the snow cover, creating a hazardous route down the Dalzell Gorge and across the Farewell Burn.

The committee made the best decision they could at the time, Nordman said.

"I don't think that decision is regretted," Nordman said. "But having said that, it's a very serious thing, losing the trail like that. We don't want to put people in harm's way. From what I'd seen, we definitely had a trail that could get through the Alaska Range."

Nordman said he was aware of the many complaints from mushers.

"We're concerned about everybody all the way, and I think from everything that was presented to ITC, we thought the trail was passable," he said.

But conditions changed drastically between the time of the decision and the time of the race start, he said.


"This was as tough a trail as I've ever seen in my 20 years as race marshal."

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Casey Grove

Casey Grove is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He left the ADN in 2014.