Into and out of Unalakleet, Dallas Seavey charges up Bering Sea coast

Nome's Aaron Burmeister led the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to the icy coast of Alaska's Bering Sea and the checkpoint of Unalakleet on Sunday afternoon, but he didn't get much of a chance to celebrate.

Less than four hours after the frosted, 39-year-old musher received the warm welcome for which the checkpoint is famous, defending champ Dallas Seavey from Willow pulled in behind a string of 12 very strong-looking dogs and was almost as quickly gone into the howling coastal winds.

Seavey told bystanders he didn't plan to stop until Shaktoolik, another 40 miles north along the trail. Burmeister, who'd been planning grab a nap, was immediately up and awake. He started checking gear hung to dry in the checkpoint and then got himself a cup of coffee. A little more than an hour after Seavey left, Burmeister took up the chase.

Seavey's bold move clearly put him in control, at least temporarily, of Iditarod 2015. He left Unalakleet behind with other mushers knowing they must either react to his move or risk losing any chance of victory.

The problem for all of them now is as simple as it is difficult. By the time Iditarod teams reach the coast, about 700 miles into the 1,000-mile race, the dogs are on a razor's edge between success and failure. Dogs are not machines; they are four-legged athletes.

They need a certain amount of rest and recovery to be able to perform at their best when trotting along the trail. Without that, their performance can quickly falter, and when that happens a team that has been averaging 8 to 10 mph can slow to 5 or 6 mph.

If that happens, it's easy for a team to start sliding back through the field. Hugh Neff from Tok was third to Unalakleet in 2010 and within hours of then-race leader and four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey of Fairbanks. Neff, who is famous as a hard charger, kept racing until his dogs hit the wall and slowed down.

By the finish line at Nome, he'd been passed by six teams and slipped all the way back to ninth. That's a change worth tens of thousands of dollars. This year there is about a $23,000 difference between third and ninth. The money forces mushers arriving on the coast to think about whether they want to try to race for victory or for position.

Those who really want to win have to gamble on going after Seavey. Those racing for position can play a more conservative game. It's a particularly tough choice this year.

Last year, winning the Iditarod was good for $50,400. This year, the third place finisher will make more than that. The winner stands to earn $70,000 and a new truck. Second is $58,600. Third is $53,900. And then the prize money starts falling quickly.

Race for victory? Or race for position?

The thought was in the back of the minds of more than a few as the winds swirled through the houses along the coast. But Burmeister was sounding like a man who wanted to race.

"We're going to make some pushes from here and see what they can do and take a couple gambles,'' he said, "but we're in a position to do that, and I didn't come for second place in this position."

Burmeister grew up in Nome less than 300 miles north of Unalakleet before moving to the Interior for a time. He seemed glad to be back on the wind-beaten edge of the world just below the Arctic Circle.

"I'm home," he said while warming up in the checkpoint. "This beats the heck out of 50 below."

The temperature was about zero, though the 15 to 25 mph wind that blew waves of snow across the landscape made it feel colder. Mushers stayed bundled up.

Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, the second musher to reach town, had the fur ruff on her parka up around her face and an icy neck warmer wrapped beneath her chin. When she stopped, she quickly went to work bedding her dogs in hay in the lee of a 4-foot-high snow bank pushed up to help protect the dogs from the wind.

Zirkle wasn't ready to make any predictions about how the wind would affect her team. She'd been poised to win the race last year when the winds knocked her out of first. But she noted she survived 60 mph gusts to eventually make it across the finish line in second and figured she was now ready to handle almost anything.

"If I'm ready, they're ready," she said. "I guess it's all a state of mind."

"It's all about running your team to the best of its ability," she said as she pulled booties off her dogs' feet. "I think I have, you know.

"There's nothing you can do about anyone else's team."

Her state of mind seemed more subdued than that of Burmeister.

"They're still burning it up right now," he said of his team. "They're doing really good. We'll see if they can maintain it."

And then Seavey came rolling through the checkpoint, looking like he was behind some sort of robotic team. His dogs have for two days now been posting some of the fastest speeds along the trail.

The musher grabbed some gear from his drop bags, jogged into the checkpoint to fill his Thermos with hot water, raced back to his sled and took off, noting he had a fierce tail wind to help push him over the 850-foot-high Blueberry Hills and on to the next village of 250 on a spit of sand between the ocean and Shaktoolik Bay.

Seavev's charge to the front started early Saturday morning after he dropped two tired dogs in Kaltag on the Yukon River and headed across the Kaltag Portage to the sea, about three hours behind then-frontrunner Zirkle, the Iditarod runner-up the last three years. Seavey was then about an hour behind Burmeister and four-time champ Jeff King.

The 27-year-old Seavey didn't take long to catch Zirkle. He passed the 45-year-old former champion of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race when she paused to rest her team about halfway across the 85-mile portage.

Not long after, Seavey caught and passed the 59-year-old King and started closing in on Burmeister. Seavey had Burmeister in sight by the time the two came over the coastal hills and started down along the Unalakleet River toward the checkpoint, and it appeared his faster-moving team could pass.

But about 20 miles out of the checkpoint, Seavey pulled over and bedded his dogs down for at least three hours. He let Burmeister collect the First to the Coast award -- $3,500 in gold nuggets -- and watched Zirkle go past. Then he got his dogs up.

When he got them going, they stormed into the lead of the Iditarod.

And now everyone else must react if they want to catch the already two-time winner.

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.