Nicolas Petit heads up the Bering Sea coast, chasing his first Iditarod win

UPDATE, 2 a.m. Monday -- Bethel’s Pete Kaiser and Norway’s Joar Leifseth Ulsom pulled out of Shaktoolik early Monday morning, about 14 miles behind Iditarod leader Nicolas Petit of Girdwood.

Kaiser left Shaktoolik with a team of 10 dogs at 1:26 a.m., and Leifseth Ulson left 13 minutes later at 1:39 a.m. with nine dogs.

Petit and his 10 dogs departed considerably earlier, at 8:05 p.m. Sunday. He traveled 14 miles in two hours and then stopped at mile 791 for a long rest, according to the race’s GPS tracker.

Petit was still resting when Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom left Shaktoolik, 777 miles into the race. They’re headed to Koyuk, 50 miles away.

Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom continued their pursuit of Petit after resting their teams for a little more than 3.5 hours in Shaktoolik. Leifseth Ulsom left one dog at the checkpoint.


UNALAKLEET – Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit and his 10-dog team got to Unalakleet on Sunday morning, took a five-hour rest and left all before the next group of mushers showed up.

Petit, who placed second last year, is chasing his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race win.

There’s a trio of racers chasing him: Bethel musher Pete Kaiser, defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, of Norway, and Fairbanks musher Jessie Royer.

All three blew through Unalakleet within less than 10 minutes late Sunday afternoon, about two hours after Petit’s team marched on to the next checkpoint: Shaktoolik. A well-rested Petit came and went from that checkpoint by 8:05 p.m. Sunday.

From Shaktoolik, there’s still about 220 miles to go to the Nome finish line. This section of trail, up the windy Bering Sea coast, is sometimes among the toughest of the race.

‘The dogs are looking awesome’

Sled dogs Shooby, 4, and Jeffery, 5, led Petit into the Bering Sea community of Unalakleet at 9:46 am. Sunday. They arrived to cheers and applause from a crowd that gathered around a snowy trail.

Petit didn’t waste any time. The 39-year-old musher broke up a bale of straw for his dogs to rest on. He fed them. He took off their booties.

Then he got prizes for being the first musher here: an ivory dog sled carving and $1,500 in gold nuggets.

[Some of our favorite photos from the 2019 Iditarod so far]

Petit has been in this position before.

In last year’s Iditarod, he was also the first musher into Unalakleet at 1:40 p.m. on a Sunday. In fact, the same pair of dogs led the team in. Then, Petit lost his lead and the trail in bad weather on the Bering Sea ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. He later said he’d be thinking about that wrong turn for probably the rest of his life.

Petit said Sunday that he didn’t have a plan for going up the coast this year — “that’s how I roll.”

One thing he said he knew for sure: If he doesn’t see trail markers after about a mile, he’ll turn around this time and head back to the checkpoint.

Petit is a seven-time Iditarod finisher. He’s placed in the top 10 five of those times. The ski-bum-turned-competitive musher grew up in France and moved to the United States as a teenager, eventually landing in Girdwood.

On Sunday in Unalakleet, he traded his heavy-duty bunny boots for sneakers and walked up the hill to a busy checkpoint building. He ate sourdough pancakes, eggs and bacon. He looked over the race standings.

“Now that I know how much of a lead it is, I feel good about it,” he said. “It’s more than it was last year and the dogs are looking awesome.”

On the 85-mile run from Kaltag to here, Petit said, he fell asleep three times. (The GPS tracker showed him veering off the trail at one point and then returning to it, but Iditarod race director Mark Nordman said that’s a small reroute this year to avoid open water.)

After eating, Petit went in to rest in one of the bunkrooms at the checkpoint building. Around 2 p.m., he returned to his dog team and left about 48 minutes later, still wearing sneakers.

The chasers

The next group of mushers came and went quickly.

They’d all stopped to rest along the trail into Unalakleet, according to the Iditarod GPS tracker.

By the time they arrived here, the snowy trail had turned wet and slushy. Temperatures peaked around 36 degrees, in line with a theme of this year’s Iditarod: warm weather.

[It was 37 degrees and raining in Shageluk Friday. Iditarod mushers weren’t very happy.]

A crowd cheered the mushers through.

It all happened fast:

First, Kaiser arrived at 4:37 p.m. with 10 dogs pulling his sled and one dog in his sled bag. He left that dog behind. Soreness, he told a race official.

Then just as Kaiser left, Leifseth Ulsom — who brushed his teeth on the back of his sled on the way here — pulled in at 4:40 p.m. He gave each of his 10 dogs a piece of frozen meat, and he was off.

At 4:43 p.m., Royer and her 13 dogs arrived. She searched through supplies she had sent to the checkpoint ahead of time. She just needed the fish, she said. Then she left, running alongside her sled through a slushy part of trail.

The three mushers are all pursuing Petit up the Bering Sea coast.

Nordman had said he expected the trail to swing closer to the coast between the communities of Shaktoolik and Koyuk due to unsafe sea ice. The trail will also travel overland between Elim and Golovin because of a lack of sea ice.

Behind the four front-runners Sunday evening were 44 more teams stretched across more than 200 miles of trail.

So far, four mushers have dropped out of the race: Shaynee Traska ended her Iditarod in Nikolai after sending four of her 14 huskies home.

Mushers Emily Maxwell, Marcelle Fressineau and Cindy Abbott all scratched at the checkpoint of Iditarod. Nordman said Abbott was having issues with her back, and Maxwell and Fressineau had tired dog teams after more than 30 hours on a tussock-studded trail on the way to Iditarod.