UPDATE: After taking his 24-hour layover in Nikolai, Petit returned to the trail at 8:54 p.m. Wednesday.
NIKOLAI — Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit made the decision Tuesday night to drop out of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after a day of misfortune. On Wednesday morning, he was reconsidering.
Petit said in an interview Tuesday at the Nikolai checkpoint that his entire dog team vomited, one dog bit another and, for 2 miles, the dogs sprinted after a buffalo.
“It was a wild ride,” Petit said.
It amounted to what Petit called a “big, giant snowball.”
“I’m flying home,” Petit said. “I’m done.”
Petit told race officials he was planning to go home as he pulled into Nikolai at 7:38 p.m. Tuesday. He started making phone calls to inform loved ones that he was heading home.
On Wednesday morning, Petit was in the Nikolai dog yard tending to his team. He said the overnight rest did wonders for the dogs, but the real trick was getting his hands on silver sulfadiazine ointment to help heal their wounds.
Petit said he would continue on to the next checkpoint -- McGrath -- as if he were to scratch there. He plans to continue going checkpoint to checkpoint, continually reevaluating the dogs. He was still in Nikolai as of 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Petit originally decided to scratch because of mild frostbite he found on three dogs. Finishing would worsen their condition, he said. The ointment he put on them Tuesday night improved that condition, he said Wednesday.
It started with a bad gamble on a common equipment modification -- Petit added thick strips of plastic to the front of his sled, in addition to the runners. He said it’s common and the hope was his sled would float over the fresh snow.
“That snow didn’t set up at all,” Petit said. “It was more like driving a plow truck -- just plowing through the snow.”
Petit said that caused the dogs to use more energy to keep up speed.
The next problem was his dog Raven, an 8-year-old male that he nearly didn’t bring on the race. Raven, he said, is a lead dog but unable to lead “a team of my caliber," Petit said. So rather than follow, Raven kept pulling to the side to see the trail ahead. It made for a disruptive, jerky ride.
Then the dogs started puking. All of them through the day.
“Oh, another one pukes, oh, then another one is puking,” Petit said, imitating himself on the trail. “Boy, oh boy.”
Petit said he had to slow the pace out of fear that one dog would choke if it was throwing up while panting. He pulled into the Yentna Station checkpoint to have the dogs looked at by a vet. He was only 53 miles into the 1,000-mile race he’s a perennial contender for.
One hundred miles later, at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, he dropped Raven.
“I should have taken a chance on a young up-and-comer,” he said.
After camping a little past Rainy Pass on the top of a hill in a windstorm, the team head headed down the trail. The dogs were “flying,” Petit said, but the wind was bearing down, and his nose started to feel cold. That’s usually a sign that the dogs need to be covered too, he said.
As he went to cover the dogs, he noticed mild frostbite on the flanks of three of them.
As the team moved forward to Rohn, they came across glare ice -- which can be hard to spot.
“Dumped the sled on the right, dumped some snacks, dumped the musher,” Petit said. “I hit my knee, hip, elbow, shoulder, and my neck hurts. But we were flying.”
In Rohn, the vets again checked the dogs and gave them the OK. He stayed there for five hours to feed the dogs, since they were throwing up. They left slow. Petit thought he could give them a nice, mellow stretch, and then slowly ramp up and get back into the race.
“My dreams of going slow goes out the window when a buffalo got on the trail and leads us for a couple miles,” he said.
The dogs, rather than following the contour of the trail, sprinted for the buffalo, running over sticks and stumps.
After the buffalo fiasco, the puking started again. The team made their way to the Bear Creek Safety Cabin at dawn, about 30 miles from Nikolai. Petit said the plan was to let them warm up in the sun. He said he stayed there for six hours, during which time fellow musher Robert Redington stopped at the cabin.
“I think I’m going home, buddy,” Petit told him.
The cabin was supposed to serve as respite. Instead, it was more headache.
In 2019, he scratched in part because his dog Joee got into a fight with another dog.
On Tuesday, Joee again gave Petit problems outside the cabin.
One of Petit’s dogs, Rigal, found a piece of meat left on the trail and went for it. Joee then bit her face.
Petit said the vets told him Rigal didn’t need stitches, but it was close.
“He’s a really talented athlete, but he’s a real butt,” Petit said of Joee. “We’ve done all these other races and he never does this anywhere else.”
Joee’s one of his best dogs, but Petit said he doesn’t know what to do with him. He’s unpredictable, he said.
“Maybe just neuter him. That could help, but, quite the specimen,” Petit said. “If it wasn’t for the butthead maneuvers he pulls. He’s just a prankster.”
Then one of his lead dogs, Kristy, kept vomiting.
“I decided there, I am bringing this dog inside this cabin, which is against the rules,” Petit said. “So I hadn’t really made up my mind, but I am not going to let her shiver outside after she just vomited a bunch.”
“I doubt they’re going to issue me a penalty since we’re going home,” he said, laughing.
The combination of events seemed insurmountable -- at least at the time.
“It’s easy to do that math,” Petit said Tuesday night.
“Sometimes doing the Iditarod to the end is easier than flying home, sometimes it’s easier to just get them home back on the couch to lick their wounds,” he said. “I’ll let them lick their wounds, I’ll put ointment on them.”
If Petit scratches, he would be the second musher to do so in the 2020 race. Chugiak musher Jim Lanier, 79 and a 16-time Iditarod finisher, scratched Tuesday night at Rainy Pass.
Petit said that after his 2018 and 2019 finishes, he was hounded by the media. It’s been tough, he said.
“I didn’t become a musher because I wanted to be on TV. I became a musher because I like dogs, I like solitude,” he said. “It’s just a lot of attention that’s sometimes hard to deal with.”
Petit said other mushers have criticized his style of running long stretches followed by long breaks, though he declined to name them. This year, shorter stretches messed him up, he said, and his dogs didn’t have time to digest their food.
In the future, he said, he’ll stick to his original strategy. That’s to start with long runs to get past other mushers and the chaos of the race, then take a nice, peaceful rest.
As Petit sat in the Nikolai school gym Tuesday night eating bowls of chicken and dumpling soup, word spread of his dropping out.
First, veteran musher Linwood Fiedler of Willow came to console him. Then came Knik mushers Kristy and Anna Berington. Later, it was racer Jessica Klejka of Willow.
“Those people know that my relationship with my dogs is really ... they’re really precious to me,” Petit said. “They’re what my world revolves around.”