Without exception, the dog drivers looked cold upon arriving in Kaltag, and who'd expect anything different? It was 35 below in town, 45 below on the Yukon River. This is Day 6 of what may be the coldest Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ever. Pete Kaiser and Hugh Neff spoke in monotones to checkers at the Kaltag checkpoint. Do you think they are having fun yet?
The 2015 Iditarod has little to recommend it in the way of fun. Maintenance is the best most mushers can manage, and the 72 mushers remaining on the course are battling the cold at every turn.
No parka hoods are down in any of the Iditarod photos I've seen. Normally, mushers arriving at a checkpoint flip their hoods down, open their sled bags and say a few words (besides "brrrrr") to the checkers. Not this year.
I haven't seen many parkas without huge ruffs either. Everyone has big mitts too. One can't bootie dogs wearing mittens.
Most drivers elect to have hand warmers in their mittens, but they come with the drawback of releasing moisture along with heat. Warm is great until the heat goes out. I notice Dallas Seavey has some cold damage to his hands, as do a few other mushers.
Dog numbers dropping
Footgear is a matter of choice. Old-timers used mukluks almost exclusively. The first Iditarod mushers used bunny boots. However, bunny boots have fallen a little out of favor in recent years because they can cause feet to sweat and then cool down. These boots haven't been manufactured for at least 20 years, so not many of the boots available today work at 100 percent efficiency.
Drivers need to care for themselves at these temperatures so they can take the best possible care of their animals. The prevailing wisdom says that dogs need up to 12,000 calories a day to perform. Sixty percent of those calories should come from fat and about a third should come from a good protein source. Dogs tend to eat well at colder temperatures. Those that don't will have to be sent home.
A look at dog numbers throughout the field shows a significant drop-off. The only team in the top 30 still driving 16 dogs is DeeDee Jonrowe. One wonders how long she can do that, given that she suffered what she described as the harshest frostbite of a three-decade Iditarod career racing into Huslia, leaving the two-time runner-up with six frostbitten fingers.
Dogs will be dropped for various reasons, not the least of which is so there are not quite so many to care for under difficult conditions. A dog that isn't pulling well still must be booted and fed. Picky eaters may be beginning to lose weight.
Watch Jesse Royer
The top end of the Iditarod field is changing. Four-time champion Martin Buser, an early race leader, has conceded his team is not suited to the conditions they've encountered and has dropped back. He was running 26th into Nulato on Sunday morning.
On the other hand, Jessie Royer made a major move into the top five out of Kaltag.
Royer has always put together very strong runs at the end of the 1,000-mile race to Nome. If she is able to do that this year, she could be among the leaders.
Dallas Seavey's team has good speed; the question is, will it last?
The next question goes back to weather. The current forecast for the Western coast is snow and blowing snow. The trail from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik, a run of about 40 miles, is overland and hilly for the first 30 miles, then quite exposed on the very edge of Norton Sound. It was minus 20 in Shaktoolik with a windchill of minus 50 on Sunday. It was a comparatively temperate minus 6 in Unalakleet, with wind gusts to 25 mph. If it were fun, everyone would want to do it.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.