NIKOLAI -- The easy road mushers enjoyed through the first 48 hours of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog has disappeared. On the drop down the Dalzell Gorge into Rohn on the backside of Rainy Pass, and then on to Nikolai across a section of trail infamous for little snow and plenty of terrain rough with spears of spruce trees, ice and short but steep hills, the race offered a reminder that The Last Great Race is no Sunday stroll in the park.
The Kenai Peninsula's Bruce Linton not only had to power himself along the trail for miles after getting knocked off his sled and separated from his team, he also nearly lost a dog in the process. The race's chief veterinarian said the animal might have made it thanks only to divine intervention. And Linton and his dog weren't the only one with problems. Veteran DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow damaged a sled severely enough that she was busily switching her gear to the backup she had pre-positioned in the village just in case. Four-time champ Lance Mackey's problem was of another sort: love.
The Fairbanks musher's attempt to bolt out of here for McGrath was brought to a screeching halt when his lead dogs began mating, forcing the front-running contender to stop, wait and watch helplessly as his competitors flew past on the trail north. Seeing this sight as he got his own team under way, Tok's Hugh Neff said it best: "You gotta be kidding me!"
Early Monday morning, sometime before 5 a.m., Linton crashed along a rollercoaster-like section of trail across an area once known as the Farewell Burn. The trail there is in many places narrow, the sides lined by small, brush trees that can easily rip a musher off the sled. Tired, as most mushers are by this point, Linton said he didn't correctly maneuver, resulting in a collision with "something" that banged up his shoulder, smacked his head and knocked him off the sled. The team kept going down the trail without him.
"I just missed smashing my eye," he said later, comfortably in the checkpoint here. He seemed generally OK, and said as much when asked if he'd seriously hurt himself.
After the crash, Linton said he hiked down the trail after his team for about 45 minutes or so before rookie musher Josh Cadzow came upon the scene, about two hours beyond Rohn. Cadzow picked up the walking musher, a common Iditarod courtesy. Cadzow, the smaller of the two men, let Linton drive the team while he rode on top of the sled.
Linton said they went along in tandem for about an hour until his sled and team were spotted, stopped in the snow.
God's looking out for him
The sled bag was ripped and poles were broken, but otherwise things looked OK -- Linton thought -- until he got closer to the team. One of the dogs had become entangled in the gang-line and laid motionless with a line looped around its neck. The dog, Linton said, was "lying straight out on the ground" and appeared dead.
Fearing the worst, Linton ran up to free the dog. When he disconnected the line, however, he realized with amazement that the dog, which could have choked, had actually been holding back the string of 11 others at the front of the line. Somehow, the dogs had chewed through the gang line. All that kept the rear-team dogs connected to those up front was loose line wrapped around the dog's neck.
As it lay in the snow, the dog's harness was tethered to the line attached to the sled. Miraculously, the dog came through the ordeal just fine.
"I can't believe none of those dogs are limping," Cadzow said as he watched Linton pull into Nikolai Tuesday. The dogs negotiated a "nasty downhill" on their own, Cadzow said, and with no one to control the sled behind he was a little surprised to see all doing so well, later.
So was Linton, in awe that the nearly-choked dog who had unwittingly held the team together was no worse for the wear.
"I made it thanks to you, man," he later told Cadzow, shaking his hand as hungry huskies fed nearby.
Linton retold the tale of his rough morning to the Iditarod's chief veterinarian, Stu Nelson, who didn't have much to say about the dog's remarkable survival other than "God's looking out for him."
A veterinarian who later checked Linton's team said all of the dogs looked fine.
Trouble near Tin Creek
With a crash of her own in the area once known as the Farewell Burn -- an area of thick brush, rough trail and the sign of new and recent wildfires -- Jonrowe was surprised to arrive here in 16th place in the race. Her team is fast and strong, she said, one of the best she's ever had and she'd expected to have less company at the front of the pack at this point in the race. Chalk the crowd up to a year with "a lot of awesome teams," she said as she busily transferred gear into a replacement sled.
"I hit a stump and I hit a tree near Tin Creek," she explained, running her hand over a sled so badly fractured that every layer of wood had cracked. Only the heavy plastic runner applied in Rohn held the piece together.
The crash came just after her team had taken off as though "slung from a slingshot," she said. She knocked her head hard enough in the accident that the lights on her headlamp went out. It might have provided a lesson about listening to your instincts.
Friends had encouraged Jonrowe to forget about dropping her spare sled here and instead position in McGrath since conditions along the trail this year seemed so good. But for years Nikolai is where she sent the extra sled, and she chose to do so again for the 2012 race, knowing it can be a rough ride across the old Burn.
What comes around, goes around
That area also bit Justin Savidas, whose sled speared a 6-inch tree root jutting onto the trail. The root splayed the runners, causing the widen apart at the front, and messed up his bridle line enough that for the final 40 miles into Nikolai his sled drove like a car out of alignment. With a severe pull to the left it made for difficult driving on a trail with rocks, chunks of ice and tree roots with a whisper-thin blanket of snow.
While driving the off-kilter sled, he ran into another obstacle. There in the middle of the trail at one point was Linton, stopped and working to get the runaway team with which he had just reunited back in order. Because the trail was narrow, Savidas was forced to reroute through the trees to get around.
Linton isn't the first musher to lose a team in this year's race it, should be noted. On Monday, 2011 Iditarod runner-up Ramey Smyth fell asleep on his way to Finger Lake and fell off his sled. Undeterred by the mishap, the team continued down the trail without him and even passed another musher on their driverless march forward. Smyth, who has been known to run for hours to ease the workload on his team, gave chase on foot until rescued by Savidas, who picked him up and ferried him to his team, which had come to a stop and sat there waiting as though they had finally realized they'd left the boss behind.
Smyth called the 45 minutes it took to catch up with his team "pure worry," and wasn't happy that disentangling the group after they were reunited added another 45 minutes to his run time.
For Savidas, it was an easy choice to give Smyth a lift. Mushers have a long history of being Good Samaritans to one another along the trail, and this was a chance for Savidas to pay back the help that came his way in 2010 about 30 miles out of McGrath. He had a tangle and lost a dog that year. For days he searched for it. He was eventually forced to scratch, because drivers cannot move up the trail until they have accounted for all their dogs. Savidas didn't want to leave anyway. He was worried about the dog. Fortunately, it finally turned up after having gone missing for five days.
"This stuff goes around and comes around and so everybody helps each other," he said.
Early on, bad luck had descended on Smyth. The first day of the race he noticed his team acting peculiar. Dogs that normally had energy were unusually tired. They didn't want to eat. By the time the team reached the back of the Kuskokwim River here, some were also vomiting.
"It's rough," Smyth said of the rocky start he's had to the race.
By late afternoon Tuesday he was contemplating dropping a few of the sick dogs. They were acting like they'd come down with a stomach virus, but he was suspicious it might actually be food poisoning.
They all fell ill after eating a batch of poultry skins, and Smyth wonders if they've contracted salmonella or some other bug.
Lovers and leaders
For four-time champ Lance Mackey the trouble wasn't as much about the trail as it was a lead dog named Mayor looking for some tail.
The frisky boy and another lead dog, Maple -- a champion runner in heat who was driving the guys crazy -- had been going at it a lot, enough to slow Mackey's run in from Rohn and stop the team cold on its way out of town.
"He's a pro," Mackey said as he stood helpless, waiting for Mayor and Maple to separate and watching team after team glide past, leaving him in their rear view.
If Mackey's lustful couple can't keep their paws off each other much longer, he said he'll put an end to it by moving Mayor toward the back and letting Maple lead the team on her own.
In Nikolai, there was no hurrying the act, something longtime Mackey rival Jeff King from Denali Park, another four-time champ, capitalized on with a smile and a wave as he slipped past Mackey.
"I'm sure there was sarcasm in there," Mackey said a short time later when his leaders finally split up and gave him the chance to get moving again. "Hopefully in Nome I'll be able to return the favor. I'll give him a wave and a smile as he comes in."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com