Skip to main Content

Back-of-the-pack Iditarod mushers trade stories about a ‘wicked’ trip through notorious Dalzell Gorge

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: March 7, 2019
  • Published March 5, 2019
Mushers tell their stories of getting to Rohn during the 2019 Iditarod. (Marc Lester / ADN)

ROHN — Norwegian musher Niklas Wikstrand got dragged sideways by his sled dog team through a portion of Dalzell Gorge on the way to the checkpoint here.

Kristin Bacon of Big Lake described part of the trail as “wicked.”

Wisconsin musher Blair Braverman flipped her sled.

Back-of-the-pack Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers had tales to tell Tuesday afternoon at the remote checkpoint here at the foot of the Alaska Range, 188 miles into the 1,000-mile race. They had just conquered one of the most technical portions of the Iditarod: the steep and twisty Dalzell Gorge. Some had done it for their first time.

“It’s absolutely stunning, like so much of the race, that we actually survive this sh-t,” said Knik musher Jeremy Keller. This is his second Iditarod. His first was in 2007.

One particular section of the trail toward the end of the gorge thrilled and frightened mushers. It was a slanted sheet of glare ice that covered most of a creek, except for a hole big enough to swallow at least part of a sled.

“That was probably the most harrowing part, and I hope it remains the most harrowing part,” said Braverman, a race rookie.

It was difficult to control the sled and the brake on the icy trail, she said. Her sled flipped, she landed on her elbow and started sliding sideways toward the hole that led to open water.

“It was angled in such a way that the dogs managed to pull me out before I went over the edge,” she said. “But I was sure that was not going to be the case.”

Alison Lifka could relate. The race rookie from Willow sat on a cooler next to her resting sled dog team at the checkpoint here, which is no more than a public cabin and a few scattered tents. Lifka said she tipped her sled on that same section of trail and was able to avoid the hole.

“By some miracle my snow hook popped out of the holster and caught onto the ice so I could get my bearings and lift my sled, so I didn’t fall into the creek,” she said.

“It was at least a 4-foot drop into the creek, so it would’ve been very difficult to get out.”

[Readers like you help make our coverage of the Iditarod possible. Subscribe now.]

It wasn’t the only open water mushers faced. Lifka said her team crossed about four ankle-deep creeks on the way to Rohn. To do that, Lifka said, she got off her sled and led her dogs through the water. Her boots were coated in ice at the checkpoint.

“I’m not looking forward to figuring out how to thaw that out,” she said.

Warm weather also continued Tuesday. Lifka hadn’t needed her parka. Mushers fed their dogs and worked on their sleds outside without gloves. A thermometer at the checkpoint read about 30 degrees.

“I’m having trouble not sweating, which could cause its own problems,” Lifka said.

Iditarod rookie Alison Lifka rests in Rohn. Mushers and teams running near the back of the Iditarod race field rested at the Rohn checkpoint on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Lifka said she’d likely send her 7-year-old dog named John home because his fur was too thick for the temperatures.

Talkeetna musher Anja Radano, running her second Iditarod, didn’t get as lucky as others on the now-infamous Dalzell ice hole. When she came around a turn on the trail, her sled slid into the hole and she fell into knee-deep water. She didn’t know how she would’ve gotten the sled out without the dogs’ help, she said.

She didn’t walk away unscathed.

“I may have a cracked rib and a broken leg, but other than that it went great,” she said with a big smile.

At the very least, Radano said, she has some bad bruising. She planned to nap in Rohn. Whether or not she would continue, she said, would depend on the severity of her pain when she woke up.