The final 11 teams rested in White Mountain on Saturday before beginning their final push to Nome as one of the wildest, wettest and weirdest Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races in history neared the finish line.
Played out against the unsettling backdrop of the coronavirus, the 48th annual race tested teams with deep snow, high temperatures that made travel through the deep snow arduous and, late in the race, howling winds and a storm surge that pushed icy water from Norton Sound onto the trail, making parts of it impassable and imperiling teams.
The race started with the news that a major race sponsor, Alaska Airlines, was pulling its support. During the race came news that another key sponsor, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge, was also bowing out.
It climaxed early Wednesday morning with Thomas Waerner’s triumphant arrival in Nome, where the usual raucous reception was far more reserved. City officials and race officials asked people to stay away for fear of spreading the coronavirus, so instead of thousands of fans lining the finish chute there were a few hundred.
It ended with drama on the trail that would have been front-page news but for the coronavirus.
Three mushers who drove into deep overflow near Safety were rescued by helicopter Friday morning by the Alaska Army National Guard, and a flooded trail left 11 teams holed up in Elim anywhere from 30 to 60 hours before they finally got out Saturday morning.
Willow musher Lev Shvarts was traveling ahead of the Elim 11 and missed the worst of the conditions.
“Golovin Bay opened up and it was just a wet, sloppy, 45-degree mess,” he said of what happened on the trail behind him. “With 45 mph winds, those waves have to go somewhere.”
So far, Shvarts is in the Red Lantern position after finishing in 23rd place Thursday afternoon. But the Elim 11 finally got moving and into White Mountain on Saturday, raising hope that more teams will cross under Nome’s burled arches Sunday.
Deep snow on the Yukon River and howling winds that slapped Bering Sea overflow onto the trail took a near-historic toll. As of Saturday, there were as many scratched and withdrawn racers as there were finishers — 23 of each from a field of 57 that started the 1,000-mile race March 8 in Willow.
The most scratches in a single race is 24 (2007 and 1980) and the highest percentage of scratches is 40.9% (1974). Whether this year’s race breaks or ties either of those marks depends on the Elim 11.
Thirteen scratches have come since Tuesday. The first happened way back on March 9, when 79-year-old Jim Lanier of Chugiak got into trouble between Rainy Pass and Rohn and was rescued by snowmachiners for the second straight year.
Shvarts said he missed the worst of the bad conditions served up in the final days of the race. He left White Mountain shortly after midnight Thursday with Lance Mackey, Tim Pappas and Jessica Klejka. They dealt with high temperatures, fresh snow, overflow and a blizzard on the final 77 miles to Nome.
Stiff, constant wind from the south sideswiped the teams as they traveled through wet, heavy snow. Shvarts said it took the group six hours to travel 25 miles to a shelter cabin where they rested their teams after toiling in deep, punchy snow up and down the hills out of White Mountain.
Shvarts was driving a seven-dog team with a single dog, Suicide, in lead.
“My main thing was to keep 'em moving, keep 'em positive, tell them they’re doing fine, and just keep traveling,” he said. “It was gut-busting work to get up those hills.”
Behind the Shvarts group were Sean Underwood of Denali Park, Matthew Failor of Willow and Tom Knolmayer of Wasilla. By the time they left White Mountain around 11 p.m. Thursday, conditions had gotten much more dangerous.
Traveling in the dark, the three drove into deep overflow outside Safety, about 30 miles from the finish line. They called for help and were aided by Nome Search and Rescue personnel on snowmachines and the National Guard helicopter crew. The three men and their dogs were in good condition Friday night, Iditarod officials said.
Overflow was also a problem for the Elim 11 — Martin Buser, Deke Naaktgeboren, Riley Dyche, Dennis Kananowicz, Kaci Murringer, Monica Zappa, Damon Ramaker, Laura Neese, Fabio Berlusconi, Magnus Kaltenborn and Grayson Bruton.
They were stuck for two days at the checkpoint, which is 123 miles from Nome. Some had been there since Wednesday, and Saturday the teams followed snowmachiners who broke an overland trail on an old mail route, away from the coast where the storm tossed water onto the trail.
As the dog teams followed the snowmachiners, three bikers followed the mushers. Casey Fagerquist of Fairbanks, Jill Martingale of Michigan and Petr Ineman of Illinois are the only remaining racers in the annual Iditarod Trail Invitational, a human-powered race that generally follows the same trail as the Iditarod teams.
Trail conditions created troubles for those racers too. A field of 74 bikers, skiers and runners started March 1 in Knik, with most planning to race 350 miles to McGrath and some hoping to make it the full 1,000 miles. Two dozen made it to McGrath and the three bikers following the mushers are the only ones still continuing to Nome.
“I have been involved in the Iditarod Trail Invitational since 2003 and have seen all kinds of conditions — overflow, really, really cold weather,” co-race director Kathy Merchant said. “But this year is exceptional. Lots of snow, angry moose, and of course the world is dealing with COVID-19.”
The coronavirus turned the 2020 Iditarod into one unlike any before. A trail used in 1925 to rush life-saving serum to a Nome population fighting diphtheria suddenly became a potential delivery system for the new virus that hit the United States hard during two weeks of racing.
Even mushers whose tunnel-vision on the trail creates a world where it’s just them and their dogs noticed a more subdued Iditarod.
“I like to say the world could be at war (during the Iditarod) and I wouldn’t know it — I’m just focused on my team,” said veteran racer Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, who placed third. “Well, I can’t say that anymore, because it obviously affected this year’s race.”
At Shaktoolik, residents voted to eliminate the checkpoint that is a key source of shelter on the coast, choosing to put space between residents and those coming through with the race. But the village nonetheless rallied to build a makeshift checkpoint outside Shaktoolik to ensure mushers a warm spot to stop.
“Things in the villages changed," musher Aaron Burmeister said Wednesday after claiming fifth place, "but everyone stepped up in a big way to make it happen.”