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Drowsy Iditarod mushers who couldn't keep their eyes open rest up in Galena

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 10, 2017

GALENA — Pete Kaiser, of Bethel, fell asleep on the way to the checkpoint here while putting on one of his mittens, waking up with it dangling off his hand.

Karin Hendrickson, of Willow, dozed off while eating a piece of cheese and standing on her sled runners, waking up with the cheese still in her mouth.

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, of Denali Park, has a neon cord, with one end attached to his sled and one end he can wear on his wrist. If he falls asleep and slides off his sled, the "leash," as he calls it, will jerk him awake.

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King shows the neon “leash” that he wears to jerk him awake if he falls off his sled while sleeping. (Tegan Hanlon / Alaska Dispatch News)

Linwood Fiedler, of Willow, fell off his sled after dozing. He reached Ruby early Thursday, about an hour after his driverless sled dog team pulled into town.

"I had just been fighting demons to stay awake. I was just fighting and fighting to stay awake. And I would nod off and force myself to open my eyes," Fiedler said here after a night of sleep.

"In one of those little catnaps I fell totally asleep and we caught a rut or something in the trail and I went flying. The funny thing was I'm sure I was still asleep in the air because I did not wake up until I planted my face firmly into the frozen river."

On the Iditarod Trail, sleep deprivation isn't pretty.

All four of the drowsy Iditarod veterans and their sled dog teams chose to take their mandatory 24-hour breaks at this Yukon River checkpoint — about 400 miles into the race — to recharge.

After hardly any sleep for days, Kaiser noted, "You can fall asleep in any position" on the trail.

"You can try to do stuff to stay awake, but I've fallen asleep running and wake up still running," he said. "There's not much you can do. It just happens over and over again."

Iditarod musher Martin Buser leaves the Galena checkpoint while a full dog yard of teams rests in the warming temperatures Friday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

On Friday morning, Kaiser and other mushers toiled in the dog lot under a bright sun and significantly higher temperatures, rising to 20 degrees above zero. That's about a 70-degree swing from the temperatures earlier in the race that dropped as low as minus-50.

The general consensus from mushers interviewed in Galena on Friday after spending the night at the checkpoint: They felt better now compared to when they got here.

At Galena, Kaiser said he slept at least 10 hours. Before that, he'd slept a total of about 90 minutes since Monday's race start in Fairbanks, he said.

"It's amazing after so many days of not sleeping much, how little rest will actually refuel you," Kaiser said. "But in a couple days, we'll be right back down to zero."

Hendrickson changed out her sled runners Friday morning. After about 300 miles on the Iditarod Trail, she said her sled runners are usually pretty beat up and need changing. This year, she said the runners she stripped off her sled "looked almost brand-new" because of the endless snow and river ice.

While river running helped her sled, it didn't help keep her awake. She called it "a little boring."

"The trail has been great other than running rivers is A) it's cold and B) a lot of times it's really windy, though we lucked out this year and C) it's just mind-numbing, you know, I keep falling asleep," she said. "I can't stay awake. Because you're a little sleepy and there's nothing to pay attention to. On a trail through the trees, at least there's something to pay attention to."

Once in Galena, she said she slept about seven hours.

"You have no idea how amazing I feel," she said. "It just feels good to be a little recuperated."

Fiedler said here Friday afternoon that after a night's sleep, he was "ready to rock 'n' roll."

"This is the first time I've gotten any real sleep. Up until now, I think I've had 3 1/2 hours," he said.

Ryan Redington talks about his frostbitten face in the Galena checkpoint Friday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

One musher was still working on recuperating in Galena on Friday afternoon. Ryan Redington, of Willow, sat inside the checkpoint here with white ointment covering his face. Frostbite from the beginning of the race had started to blister.

Still, after several hours of sleep in Galena, he said, "I might look rough but I feel good."

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