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Alaska News

First Iditarod checkpoint of Nenana buzzes with family, friends, dog handlers

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2
  • Published March 6

Nicolas Vanier’s sled dog’s face is caked with snow at the Nenana checkpoint during the first day of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

NENANA — "Here he is! Here he is! Yahoo!" yelled Kathy Chapoton as her husband, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, and his orange-jacketed sled dog team pulled into the checkpoint here around 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Chapoton, in a long parka and snow pants, thrust her arms into the air as she cheered in the community of roughly 400, the first stop on the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which began at 11 a.m. in Fairbanks before thousands of fans who endured subzero cold to watch and cheer.

Jodi Bailey’s and other dog teams rest at the Nenana checkpoint during the first day of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, March 6, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Unlike a majority of the checkpoints, Nenana sits on the road system. It only takes about an hour to drive here from the race start in Fairbanks and many people who gathered around the mushers did just that, including Chapoton who came with dog handlers and family friends to greet Buser for his 34th Iditarod.

"It's always exciting and a little anxiety producing," Chapoton said of following the Iditarod. "I just see all the work he does all year, and I just hope it works out."

Because of Nenana's proximity to Fairbanks, the Iditarod leaves it up to mushers to determine whether to have people in the community available to take home any sled dogs they decide to leave behind, said Iditarod race judge Andy Angstman. At remote checkpoints, only accessible by air, the race organizes the dogs' travel.

Nenana is also the only checkpoint where mushers can get help, Angstman said, and as a result, it became a bit of a family reunion here after mushers spent about 60 miles on the Chena and Tanana rivers after starting in Fairbanks.

A handler carries a bale of straw from the truck to the dog lot at the Nenana checkpoint during the first day of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nenana, Alaska, on Monday, March 6, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Mushers' friends, family and dog handlers gathered in the community, alongside residents and visitors who cheered as the sled dog teams passed. Dog trucks lined the streets. People brought the mushers food, pulled sleds full of straw to where they rested their dogs and helped pack their sleds. Mushers could not get help with dog care, however, Angstman said.

"After this, they're pretty much on their own," he said.

In the below-zero temperatures and bright sun, Aliy Zirkle's dog handler helped her fix a broken sled brake as she rested her dog team on straw. Nicolas Petit's girlfriend helped him rearrange items in his sled. Jim Lanier, who dropped out of the Iditarod and handed over his team to Gunnar Johnson, brought his replacement straw and a warm meal for the sled dogs.

Most mushers here described the trail into Nenana favorably. Rookie Laura Neese, who had her parents at the checkpoint, said the trail had "a little bit of everything."

"There were parts that were firm and that were soft and crunchy," she said as she Velcroed jackets onto her dogs. "It was nice, easy river running."

When four-time champion Dallas Seavey pulled into Nenana, his wife, Jen; his 6-year-old daughter, Annie; and dog handlers gathered around the sled and quickly strapped a bale of straw to the back, loading hot drinks and a hot meal in a cooler for Dallas and preparing a hot meal for the dogs. As they filled the sled, Dallas jogged back and forth as he moved dogs around.

The team timed how long it all took: 11 minutes.

"Efficiency is really something that's not new to our crew or to our dogs and certainly not to Dallas," Jen said.

On his way out, Annie gave her dad a bag of Cheetos.

"Pop was going like a snail," she told him referring to her grandfather Mitch Seavey, the two-time Iditarod champion who had passed through here shortly before.

By nightfall Monday, Buser and the Seaveys led the pack out of Nenana and toward their next stop, Manley Hot Springs, about 90 miles down the trail.

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