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At Nikolai, battered and frustrated Iditarod mushers regroup

NIKOLAI -- At the musher meeting last week Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials showed rookie Nathan Schroeder and everyone else six pictures of what were considered the worse sections of the nearly 1,000-mile route to Nome.

What he saw wasn't too concerning. Sure, snow was a little bare in some spots, but no worse than what he was seeing Tuesday afternoon in Nikolai. Here, in the small Athabascan village of about 90, there was plenty of snow, deep enough to set a snow hook and more than sufficient to drive a dog team across.

But that is not what Schroeder was getting into early this week. Instead there's been barren trail, covered in rocks, punctuated by steep, icy descents, open water and even holes to navigate around.

"It's a nice looking four-wheeler trail," he said. "It's not a dog sled trail."

For Schroeder, 36, his first race on the trail is changing his expectations. A three-time champion of John Beargrease Sled Dog Race in Minnesota, Schroeder was hoping to be competitive from the start. As he worked his way gently around his sled Tuesday, he said he was lowering his finishing expectations.

"If I didn't hustle out there to save my sled, I'd be walking right now," Schroeder said.

Fox musher Ken Anderson couldn't believe race officials had decided to use the normal trail and not reroute the race north, starting in Fairbanks. He said the trail between Rohn and Nikolai was "steep, tussocky and rocky. Nothing was consistent. You were constantly reacting to stuff."

"There was serious misrepresentation on the trail," he said, bent down on his knees, pounding his runner plastic off his sled with an axe. "If we had known it was this bad we (the mushers) would have boycotted."

"This was a trail we shouldn't have gone down," Anderson said. "I can't even compare it to anything else."

Katherine Keith, running a team out of 2011 champ John Baker's kennel, had a spare sled in Nikolai. Despite her rookie status, she was one of the smart ones. Her undamaged sled looks fresh out of the box compared to the lashed together, rickety, shredded sleds most other mushers are driving.

"This has exceeded my expectations in terms of difficulty," she said.

As they shared bowls of moose stew and commiserated together, mushers shared war stories and battle wounds with one another in the Nikolai school. Martin Buser, taking his 24-hour break, sat at one of the cafeteria tables, gently massaging his sprained ankle. Paige Drobny hoped the course out of the community was flat because she wouldn't be able to stop her sled on the downhills with no brake.

"Maybe next year we should send a sled out to each checkpoint," Mats Pettersson told the contingent of mushers gathered around a cafeteria table.

But somehow there was one musher who seemed to miss the carnage. Big Lake musher Cim Smyth, running his 13th Iditarod, somehow made it to Nikolai unscathed.

"The grace of God kept me up," he said. "It had to have been something more than just my driving skills."

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