Alaska News

Used to a balmy Alaska winter, Iditarod mushers feel the chill of minus 30

MANLEY HOT SPRINGS -- Clear and cool weather greeted mushers on their first night on the Iditarod Trail, though "cool" might have been an understatement.

"I don't think anyone's had cold weather (this winter) except Iditarod and the Quest," said Cantwell musher Mike Santos as he ate a thawed burrito, cramming the food between two icicles that had formed on his mustache.

Santos could only shake his head as he tried to eat. A giant bonfire where he camped near the trail had melted off an earlier 'stache-cicle, though it quickly reformed on the run to Manley.

"Some of us have gotten wimpy," he said.

But mushers were, for the most part, in good spirits as they steadily cruised into the Manley checkpoint. The trail they'd traveled from Nenana to Manley was fast and well-groomed as it traversed the hills, creeks and the nearby frozen Tanana River.

Only 14 dogs had been dropped as of Tuesday afternoon, a relatively low number given that almost three-quarters of the mushers had made their way through the checkpoint 150 miles from the Fairbanks restart. Most dogs napped in bright sunlight, curled in tight balls as mushers covered them in straw. Almost all the dogs wore fleece-lined coats for protection from temperatures that hovered in the minus-teens.

Mushers expect to see continued cold as they head down the trail toward Tanana, the next checkpoint that early race leader Martin Buser of Big Lake reached about 3 p.m. That route is now overland, moved from the Tanana River after, ironically, warm weather two weeks ago caused the ice to melt slightly, creating overflow and other hazards.

But while the dogs fared well, mushers from across the state who'd grown accustomed to training in above-average temperatures dealt with the cold. Jim Lanier said his frostbitten fingers -- from damage inflicted in previous races -- were achy, slowing him as he fed and bootied his dogs.

Heart doctor Mark Selland nursed a sore ribcage after crashing on a glaciated creek 45 miles before Manley. He worried the accident might end his race, since the ribs, which he suspects might be broken, prevent him from lifting his right arm above his shoulder.

But despite the chill, mushers were grateful for true winter weather.

"I've been saying this all year: Anything is doable on snow," said Santos, who scratched in Rohn last year after running through a snowless Dalzell Gorge.

Chuck Schaeffer, 60, who's lived north of the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue much of his life, said the cold weather on the trail even got to him a bit. Back in the race for the first time since 1990, he opened a box of Heet that mushers use to cook their dog food and said he was "feeling his age" in the cold. Kotzebue has been relatively warm this year too, and he got used to higher temperatures. He considered camping about 30 miles from Manley but instead ran all the way to the checkpoint in order to sleep out of the cold.

"It made me think of how spoiled a person can get," he said.

Katherine Keith, running a team of puppies for 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker, said this year's race would be her first serious winter camping. Despite a 30-below sleeping bag and a bivy sack, she still found herself shivering as she camped between Nenana and Manley.

While training in Kotzebue, Keith said she and Baker often stay at covered places, so she hasn't done a lot of cold-weather camping. She said she watched YouTube videos on how to camp in 40-below weather. With the new trail requiring long runs between checkpoints, she'll do more of that as she takes her puppy team, which runs shorter distances than teams of veteran dogs, up the trail.

When asked what Baker would think of her cold-weather camping approach, she joked that after so many years of mushing, he would probably just lie down on the snow for a couple of hours.

"He's so tough," Keith said.

Suzanna Caldwell

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