As Iditarod mushers begin their 852-mile run, getting to the race at all feels like a victory

DESHKA LANDING — As she sorted through items to add to her sled bag before Sunday’s start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Mille Porsild expressed a common sentiment among mushers in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

“I’m insanely thankful that this race is on,” she said.

Porsild, who placed 15th last year to earn Rookie of the Year honors, could have been speaking for all 46 mushers who left Deshka Landing on a brilliant, sunny afternoon for the start of a race unlike any other in the Iditarod’s 49-year history.

They are grateful to be racing amid a global pandemic, even if it means running a race significantly altered by COVID-19.

The usual throng of fans was absent as teams headed down a trail that will eventually bring them back to Deshka Landing instead of the traditional finish line in Nome. A few dozen spectators watched from the fence along the start chute, and a couple hundred others watched from just outside the boat launch near Willow.

The happy-to-be-here vibe was especially strong with mushers Jessie Royer and Cindy Gallea, who encountered troubles at the Canadian border while traveling to Alaska from the Lower 48.

Both women were turned away while trying to cross the border between Montana and Canada. Royer was allowed to cross a day later, but Gallea wound up flying to Alaska when it became clear she couldn’t drive here.

Royer, a top contender who splits her time between Alaska and Montana, said she took a required COVID-19 test on a Monday before driving to the border two days later.

“By the time I got to the border my COVID test was expired by a few hours,” she said. “I had to go back to Shelby to get another one (and) head back to the border the next day.

“I’m an Alaska resident. That’s the only reason I got through. Cindy tried a few hours behind me and she didn’t get through because she’s a Minnesota resident.”

Gallea said once she reached the border, she was told she couldn’t travel through Canada unless she worked or lived in Alaska. She and her dogs spent several hours there while she tried to plead her case.

“I talked to I don’t know how many border agents,” she said. “My son said, well, you should see about flying, and I said, that sounds complicated and expensive.”

But it was her ticket to the Iditarod. Gallea said Alaska Airlines “gave me a pretty good deal” to fly her, her gear and 14 dogs to Anchorage.

This is Gallea’s 16th appearance in the Iditarod, and the 69-year-old from Wykoff, Minnesota, says it will be her last.

She finished 12 of her previous 15 races, but her last one, in 2019, ended 50 miles from Nome when her lead dogs got sick and she decided to scratch.

“It’s hard to end on that note,” she said.

Royer, 43, is running her 18th Iditarod and is coming off back-to-back third-place finishes. She’s one of the Iditarod’s top racers, but she’s making zero predictions.

“I’ve just learned to not expect much,” she said. “Just get out there and see how it goes. There’s a lot of variables out there and a lot of good teams, so I’ve learned not to expect anything. Just go with the flow.”

The variables this year include a race route no one has ever done before.

The race has been rerouted to avoid interactions with villages along the Yukon River and Norton Sound coast, reducing it to 852 miles instead of 1,000. It includes two crossings of the Alaska Range and will make a short loop in the Iditarod Mining District that will take teams to a ghost town called Flat, where the race has never gone before.

Brent Sass of Eureka, a veteran racer with tons of Yukon Quest experience but only four Iditarod finishes, said the revamped route could work in his favor.

“It could be an advantage for guys like me and other guys who don’t have a huge history in the Iditarod,” said Sass, who placed a career-best fourth last year. Mushers with dozens of Iditarod finishes often follow a set schedule, “but now all that is thrown out the window,” Sass said.

“But it’s still the best dog teams in the world and we’re still racing to a finish line.”

Sass is recovering injuries suffered recently when he went airborne off his sled during a long training run. He was left with a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder -- a titanium plate and seven screws are holding things together, he said -- but he doesn’t think the injuries will be an issue.

“I’ve been back on the sled for three weeks,” he said. “We’ll see when I’m 500 miles in if the soreness comes back.”

Paige Drobny is coming off back-to-back seventh-place finishes and is running nearly the same team as last year.

“Just two dogs that are different,” she said as she replaced the plastic runners on her sled -- until Sunday, she’d been using the same ones she finished last year’s race with. “They’ve been kicking my butt the last couple years, the dogs have, so hopefully I can keep up with them.”

Drobny and her husband, fellow musher Cody Strathe, recently moved from the Fairbanks area to Cantwell, and she said the dogs are enjoying life on the Denali Highway.

“We moved there so the dogs could have more freedom in the sumer time and the winter time. They can be more doggy,” she said.

Absent from this year’s race is the defending champion, Thomas Waerner of Norway, whose travel plans were foiled by pandemic restrictions. Also absent is three-time champion Mitch Seavey, who is skipping the race for the first time in years.

Seavey is 61 and has entered every Iditarod since 1995, plus the 1982 race. He loaned his best dogs to his son, four-time champion Dallas Seavey, after deciding to take a break this year.

As he watched others make last-minute preparations Sunday, Seavey said he was ready “to give myself a chance to not be on that treadmill, that hamster wheel” — but admitted that once he got to Deshka Landing, he missed being part of the action.

“I’ve been actually pretty smug and proud of myself,” he said, “and then this morning I said, ‘Oh man, I’m not gonna be in the show.’ I don’t regret having a year off, taking a sabbatical. (But) right now, man, I wish I was going.”

Marc Lester reported from Deshka Landing and Beth Bragg from Anchorage.

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