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Iditarod

Baker and fiancee Keith finish side by side; all 16 of Royer's dogs reach Nome

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2
  • Published March 15

NOME — The winners were gone, but mushers and sled dogs continued to cross the Iditarod finish line on snowy Front Street all day Wednesday, as subzero temperatures rose to zero by midday.

And in their own ways, most were winners too — personal victories mixed with some heartaches.

A siren blared as each team neared the finish. By 8:30 p.m., 22 of the 66 mushers remaining in the race were done — about 1,000 miles of Alaska wilderness behind them.

Here are a few snapshots from the day:

After 2 dog deaths, engaged pair cross the finish line together

John Baker of Kotzebue waited for his fiancee, Katherine Keith, in Koyuk, 171 miles from the finish in Nome. He had heard about her dog, 4-year-old Flash, that died after collapsing in its harness on the way to the checkpoint.

"It was a stormy, miserable night out there and I knew that she was having a little bit of a rough time and I knew that we could do better going the rest of the way as a team," Baker recalled in Nome.

Baker, the 2011 Iditarod champion, had lost a dog from his team by that time in the race, too.

In Unalakleet, Baker said Race Marshal Mark Nordman told him his dog, 3-year-old Groovey, was hit by a car in Anchorage and died.

Baker had dropped Groovey earlier in the race because the dog had diarrhea and was losing weight, he said. Groovey was flown back to Anchorage, where he got loose from his handler's home.

"It is so, so sad," Baker said. "The dog worked so hard and then — just a tragedy."

Keith said she didn't expect Baker to wait for her at the checkpoint.

"John stayed longer, to be available in Koyuk, causing him to lose a few places," she said. "But that's the kind of man he is."

She said she didn't know what happened to her dog, Flash, out on the trail and veterinarians continued to look into what went wrong.

"It's a huge loss. I was thinking about him…" she said about Flash, before trailing off and starting to cry. "These guys mean a lot to you, so when you lose one it's very tragic."

After Koyuk, Baker and Keith continued down the trail together.

On Wednesday evening, Baker pulled down Front Street here and stopped 20 or so feet from the finish, waiting for Keith who followed close behind.

They parked their dog teams side by side around 5:50 p.m., their 16 dogs walking around Front Street and tangling lines.

It had not gone exactly as planned, Baker said, but the couple had finished the journey together, in 18th and 19th place.

Jessie Royer pets her lead dogs in Nome. Royer finished the race in fifth place. Iditarod mushers continued to stream into the finish line in Nome on Wednesday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Sixteen dogs to Nome

At 1:08 a.m. Wednesday, Jessie Royer captured  fifth place with a full string of 16 sled dogs — the same animals she started with in Fairbanks last Monday. That's a rare feat in the long-distance race.

"I'm pretty excited to have my whole team here," Royer said after she walked down her line of dogs, petting each one.

In the past 10 years, only five other mushers have finished with 16 dogs, none placing in the top 20. Typically, mushers will drop dogs at checkpoints along the trail for a variety of reasons including injuries, illness or simply because they can't keep up.

But this year, Royer didn't have to leave anyone behind, which she attributed to training and some luck. Of her 16, 11 dogs finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest about a month ago; the other five had finished the Iditarod multiple times, she said.

"The good Lord blessed me with a good bunch of dogs and a lot of luck," said Royer who splits her time between Alaska and Montana. "You can have a great team of dogs, but things happen on the trail. They fall in a hole and pull a muscle or they just get a cold or flu bug and there's not much you can do about it."

This was Royer's 15th Iditarod and her first time reaching Nome with a 16-dog team — the most a musher can start with.

She said she entered the 2017 Iditarod with two goals: place in the top-five and reach Nome in under nine days. She accomplished both, shaving more than 12 hours off of her best finish at fourth place in 2015. That shows the speed of this year's race.

"Everyone's just training hard and pushing hard and racing even harder," she said.

Aliy Zirkle gets a lick from her lead dog Sparky, at the Iditarod finish. Iditarod mushers continued to stream into the finish line in Nome on Wednesday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Sick dogs upend Zirkle’s plans

Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers said she had to change her race strategy this year after her dog team contracted some sort of stomach bug on the trail. At times, she wasn't sure they would finish.

Zirkle said she spoke to "every single veterinarian on the Iditarod" about her dogs, but the exact cause of their illness remained unclear. The team had started eating again on the trail, she said.

"We've got to do a little veterinarian research on that, see what they've got going on," she said.

Zirkle and her team raced into Nome at 10:49 a.m. Wednesday, about 15 minutes before three-time Kuskokwim 300 champion Pete Kaiser, of Bethel. In the 77 miles between White Mountain and the finish, the two leap-frogged one another along the trail.

But Zirkle said it was less jockeying for eighth place, and more "just trying to get here."

She said both teams faced wind gusts of 40 mph, temperatures of minus 10 and limited visibility that left her unsure of Kaiser's location at times. Even when he was close, she said she couldn't see him. But she could see her dogs, which wore glow-in-the-dark collars.

"I need to put a glow-in-the-dark collar on Pete so I can see him," she said. "But he wouldn't agree to that."

Iditarod musher Pete Kaiser holds his son Ari Kaiser as they pose for photos after Pete finished the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

‘The challenge is keeping up’

At 11:05 a.m., Kaiser and his nine sled dogs in black jackets crossed under the finish line. The musher carried a 10th dog in his sled bag.

"We had some issues and some ups and downs but we worked through them the best we could to get here the way we did, so I'm happy with that," said Kaiser, who took ninth place and said he had sick dogs during the race, and some key dogs developed "fluky injuries."

"Overall, it's always good to be here, despite everything," Kaiser said.

This year, Kaiser and his team reached Nome in 8 days, 23 hours and 5 minutes — his second fastest time, but not his second best place. In 2012, he placed fifth after traveling on the trail for just over 9 days and 11 hours.

"It's just an evolving sport every year and there's those guys up front who are pushing the envelope every year, getting better and better and better at this. You're seeing faster dog teams and they look more amazing than ever and yeah, I mean ninth place in under 9 days — it's crazy," he said.

About the trail, Kaiser said it had some "slow sections" this year, but was a "really good trail" and while the below-zero temperatures can be hard on humans, they were good for mushing dogs.

"When you have good weather, it doesn't really limit the good teams," Kaiser said. "The teams that are doing well, they can just fly."

Iditarod musher Jeff King gets a kiss from one of his sled dogs at the finish in Nome during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

‘Like Tom Brady, I had a strong fourth quarter’

Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park arrived in Nome with 12 dogs and wearing a floor-length, camouflage parka he refers to as his "Arctic muumuu."

"I've been warm and I've been cold and I'd rather be warm," said the four-time Iditarod winner.

King said while he took it "pretty easy" in the beginning of the race, his team increased its speed once it reached the Bering Sea coast, about 260 miles from Nome.

"I just don't think I have the energy to race the whole race like this, but I knew I did from Unalakleet and kind of like Tom Brady, I had a strong fourth quarter," King said, referring to the New England Patriots quarterback whose fourth-quarter performance led to a Super Bowl victory earlier this year.

Before reaching Unalakleet, King had said at the Nulato checkpoint he didn't want to hurry through the Iditarod anymore.

"It's pretty obvious this will be my lowest finish in my entire career," he said at the Yukon River checkpoint.

But, it wasn't.

He reached Nome in 9 days and 49 minutes, only about 49 minutes longer than last year. He moved up from 31st place in Unalakleet to 11th in Nome.

"I couldn't have done this without doing what I did earlier," King said. "I wouldn't be able to keep up this pace without taking it pretty easy at the beginning."

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