NOME -- Behind a strong team of nine champion Alaskan huskies, 28-year-old Dallas Seavey from Willow rolled under the burled arch on Front Street in this fabled gold mining town in the wee hours of Wednesday to seal the deal on a victory in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and put the Seavey stamp solidly on the current era of Alaska dog mushing.
With the northern lights flickering overhead, a morning crowd still recovering, or yet to recover, from St. Patrick's Day celebrations the day before gave him a warm welcome as he notched Iditarod win number three.
As late-night partiers flooded onto Front Street, Seavey's arrival in Nome was foreshadowed by a helicopter flying overhead. He was led down the historic main drag by a police officer, his wispy blond goatee coated in frost by the 10-degree temperatures as he crossed the finish line at 4:13 a.m.
Fans reached out to give the three-time champion high-fives as he neared the finish line. After setting his hook, Seavey stopped to hug each dog individually, then shared hugs with members of the Seavey clan gathered under the bright lights.
Upon being congratulated by a bystander, Seavey uttered the words all race-watchers already knew.
"We got 'er done," he said.
Combined with his father's win in 2013, Dallas's win Wednesday gave the Seavey family title to victories in four straight Iditarods. And Mitch crossed the finish line second at 8:23 a.m., cementing the first one-two Iditarod finish by a parent-child combo. It was also the most lucrative finish in race history -- $128,600 for father and son, plus a new Dodge truck for the youngster.
Dallas Seavey immediately gave full credit to the dogs.
"As long as you take care of the dog team and make good decisions, good things will happen,'' he said. "We loved every second of it.''
Seavey's coronation as the new king of the Iditarod had been clear since White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, on Monday. With only 80 miles left to the finish line and a lead of more than four hours over father Mitch, his nearest competitor, Seavey's team could almost have walked to Nome and won.
But they trotted smartly over the Topkok Hills and along the famous beaches of golden sands to reach the finish line in an unofficial time of 8 days, 18 hours, 13 minutes and 6 seconds -- about four hours off last year's time. Much of this year's course ran on the ice-coated rivers of Alaska's Interior. Seavey conceded it was flatter than the traditional route over the Alaska Range, but said it was every bit as challenging.
"This was a very tough race. It was not the easy race people had anticipated for the Yukon River," he told a crowd of media and fans gathered inside the Nome Convention Center after his early-morning finish.
After an extremely mild winter across Alaska, Iditarod charged out of a Fairbanks restart into the Alaska of old. Temperatures in the Interior plunged to 40 degrees below zero and on the Bering Sea coast the teams encountered deep, fresh snow driven by winds that at times created blizzard conditions.
All mushers are required to take an eight-hour rest at White Mountain. Seavey's dogs spent most of Monday lounging there in a warm sun as they napped and ate their way through midday.
As the musher worked to ready the team to leave just after 6 p.m., he asked Iditarod checkers for a warning countdown for every minute of the last 10 before his scheduled departure. The checkers weren't sure whether the reality TV star -- Seavey is a regular on Ultimate Survival Alaska -- was joking or not in the midst of this very real and very difficult competition.
The team eventually left right on time, starting off hesitantly along the frozen Fish River toward the Topkok Hills. Seavey turned and yelled to the checkers, "Am I good on time?"
When they told him yes, he joked back, "But I had to go to the bathroom."
Then the 10 dogs in his team trotted down the trail behind Reef, the winner of the golden harness in Iditarod 2014. A blondish dog with a white face, Reef has been a star in Seavey's team again this year. The 3-year-old, Seavey said, led the team through the most challenging parts of the trail, including some areas badly drifted in with new snow on the trudge into White Mountain.
Beatle, another golden harness winner, was in front with Reef, but on a shorter tug line that put the young dog clearly in charge. Beatle was about a head back from Reef, playing a supporting role.
He had a full head of steam by the time he reached Safety at 1:09 a.m., blazing through the final checkpoint 22 miles from Nome at 10 mph and staying long enough to say hello and goodbye. Race over.
Confident from the start
Seavey had been confident in these dogs and the rest of his team from the race start in Anchorage on March 7. It was there the two-time champ observed, "This is the best dog team I've ever had.''
On the 11-mile, ceremonial run through the state's largest city, the former state wrestling champ and the pride of Soldotna's Skyview High seemed totally at ease. At one point, he switched bibs with a handler riding a second sled and went to the back of the Dallas parade to enjoy the ride in relative anonymity. As he rolled through a wooded area of town, he looked backward to give a sly nod to a photographer alongside the trail.
But Seavey is known to be confident about many things, not the least of them his dog-sledding skills. And he's earned that right, rising quickly through the ranks to seize the mantle of the world's best dog driver and throw his hat into the ring with the best there's ever been. When he won in 2012 at the age of 25, he was the youngest champion ever. Now he's the youngest with three titles and finds himself gone from a superstar to a legend. Just six titans of the sport have won more than his troika of titles -- Rick Swenson with five and Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey and Jeff King with four each. All are in the Iditarod Hall of Fame. If Seavey joins that list, he'll join his grandpa, Dan, who ran the first race in 1973 and helped start the race across the expansive Alaska wilderness.
However, he said he'll only keep running dogs as long as he's still having fun.
"As soon as mushing becomes a job ... that's when it's time to retire," he said.
That day may still be a ways off.
"At this rate I don't see myself stopping anytime soon," he said.
Battle for redemption
Once on the altered Iditarod Trail, with the restart moved to Fairbanks this year because of the lack of snow on the traditional trail over the Alaska Range, Seavey played his cards close to the chest. He was just another of the potential contenders in the lead pack as the race moved down the Tanana and Yukon rivers and then swung north to Huslia.
There in the historic home of sled-dog racing legend George Attla, who died earlier this year at the age of 81, Seavey showed up as the fifth musher in the race, more than four hours behind then race leader Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, a three-time runner-up who many hoped to see win this year after a disaster in 2014.
The 44-year-old musher appeared to have the 2014 race won, but holed up at the Safety checkpoint only 20 miles short of the finish in a howling windstorm. Seavey, who'd been behind both Zirkle and four-time champ King from McKinley Park, came through to win in one of the most dramatic Idiatrods. The then 58-year-old King, who led the race out of White Mountain in 2014, was literally blown out of the race on the way to Safety.
Both Zirkle and King came back this year looking for redemption. Zirkle led the race out of Huslia after most mushers completed a mandatory, 24-hour rest stop. Both Dallas Seavey and King were chasing. By Kaltag, where the race moves off the Yukon and heads for the coast, Zirkle and King were running one and two with Seavey fourth, almost three hours off the lead.
Clearly, however, the younger musher had been banking rest in his team with long stops along the trail, and on the Kaltag Portage, he launched his winning move. As the race neared the coast at Unalakleet, 39-year-old Aaron Burmeister from Nome had pulled into the lead with Seavey in his slipstream. It appeared then that Seavey could pass easily to grab the lead at the coast, but instead of passing, he stopped.
About 20 miles from the Bering Sea coast, Seavey parked his team and camped. Burmeister went into Unalakleet to claim the first-to-the-coast award. He was joined there by Zirkle. Seavey arrived hours behind the leader. The game of cat-and-mouse with local boy Burmeister, he said, was one of the more entertaining aspects of the race.
"We had a good time out there kinda joking back and forth," he said. "There was some little mind games going on."
But Seavey didn't stop in Unalakleet. He blew through the regional hub of 700 people to grab the race lead for the first time. He'd carefully husbanded the energy of his team up until then to set up a move that took him another 40 miles along the trail to the tiny village of Shaktoolik, population 250. There he rested his dogs on a spit of snow-covered sand hard against the edge of the Bering Sea.
The move put him in position to control the race. Burmeister gamely took up the chase and caught Seavey in Shaktoolik, despite limping along on only one good leg. Burmeister had to have his knee rebuilt after a serious crash in the 2014 race, and it has yet to fully heal.
At Shaktoolik, Burmeister tried to knock Seavey off schedule by pushing through the village on the 50-mile march across Norton Bay to Koyuk, but the fates were against him. He hit fresh and blowing snow that slowed his dog team to a slog. Behind him, Seavey took up the slog as well, and he was just a hair faster.
By the time the duo arrived in the checkpoint, Seavey was back in the lead, both teams were tired, and the race was over for Burmeister. He stayed in the checkpoint for more than an hour after Seavey left, clearly trying to rest his dogs to give himself a better chance of fighting off the competition coming from behind.
The winner of the Iditarod gets a new truck and $70,000, but second is good for more than $50,000 with the payout falling by thousands with every position after that.
At White Mountain on Tuesday, Burmeister was clinging to third. He'd been passed by 55-year-old Mitch Seavey, Dallas' father and a two-time Iditarod winner, and was in danger of being caught by Zirkle and Montanan Jesse Royer, who was less than two hours back.
Dallas Seavey, however, was worrying about none of that. He was celebrating at the finish with his family, which now has five Iditarod titles. As the clan sat inside the final checkpoint talking about the race and awaiting Mitch's arrival, a weary Dallas sat down for a bowlful of what he surmised was chili.
"It's good whatever it is," he said.
On the eve of Dallas' victory, his brothers Danny and Conway walked down a quiet Front Street just as the sun was setting over the city. The men said they'd stopped watching the race tracker online and were simply settling in for the overnight finish.
"You drive yourself crazy if you sit there and just hit refresh for 10 hours," Danny Seavey said.
By now the family is used to Iditarod wins, but both predicted there would be something extra special in seeing their brother and father come across the line in first and second place.
"One-two is something we thought might happen someday, but it's still in the realm of too-good-to-be true," Conway said.
Danny echoed those sentiments.
"I think he's very, very proud of Dallas," he said. "I think this is going to be an awesome finish for my dad."
In fact, after watching his old man prepare to make the final run into Nome, Danny said he thinks this year could go down as sweeter for Dad than Mitch's own two victories. After all, he pointed out, it's Mitch's training and breeding programs that have allowed the family to reach the front of the distance mushing pack in recent years.
"I think this is going to be more special for Dad than for Dallas," he said. "He gets a lot of joy out of seeing people buying into the system."
After he finished, Mitch seemed to agree. "Second place is not too bad," he said. He got choked up when he talked about his dogs, who snacked hungrily after arriving at the finish line.
"It brings tears to your eyes," he said.
Though he said he was happy for his son, Mitch said he has no plans of letting Dallas run away with the mantle of the family's top dog driver, and is already thinking about next year.
"I have no plans of changing anything," he said. "I'm a better dog racer standing here than I've ever been in my life."
Four generations of Seaveys were at the finish line to greet Dallas and Mitch, including Dallas' brothers Conway and Danny, mom Janine, grandparents Dan and Shirley, and his niece Allikz. His wife, Jen -- herself a former Iditarod musher -- was also there, although the couple's 4-year-old daughter, Annie, stayed in the care of Jen's mom.
Dan Seavey, a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame, said he couldn't be happier with young Dallas' performance, calling his grandson's accomplishment was "nothing short of amazing." He said his old friend Joe Redington Sr. -- known as "the father of the Iditarod" -- would be overjoyed to see the crowds in Nome 43 years after the race was first run.
"His buttons would be poppin' no doubt," he said of the late race founder.
Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this report.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing