Revamped Iditarod brings equipment adaptations and a fast pace as mushers cross the Alaska Range

ROHN — A day into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a fast trail and shortened route are making for a quicker race than normal.

Mushers are adapting to this year’s pandemic-adjusted trail in a number of ways, as evidenced by their equipment. Recent rule changes and the absence of shelter options in checkpoints mean competitors are using larger sleds and hauling “tail-dragger” trailers for hauling supplies, sleeping options and dogs.

“We got this fun new tent, it looks like a play kennel,” said Bethel musher Victoria Hardwick during a break Monday at Finger Lake. “You don’t have to use your fingers or anything.”

It was sunny and warm at Finger Lake, the last checkpoint before mushers make their ascent of the Alaska Range. A slight breeze picked up in the afternoon.

Nearby, rookie Will Troshynski of Fairbanks was tending to his team and a sled he began building just 12 days before the start of the race.

“It was almost impossible to get the runners up here,” he said, noting freight delays.

He custom-made his sled bag, including a flat, rectangular battery-charging bay nestled near the handlebar.

“I made this insulated lunchbox,” he said, showing off a tangle of wires to power devices and headlamps.

It’s a handy invention. Without the usual accommodations this year, mushers can neither power essential devices like headlamps nor hang damp socks and coats over stoves to dry out at checkpoints.

Another of Troshynski’s solutions to this year’s challenges is silicone pouches, the kind that come tucked in consumer goods as a way to sap moisture out of essential garments.

“The main thing is my neck gaiter,” he said.

Throughout the day, mushers moved from Fingerl Lake to Rainy Pass Lodge, which during a normal Iditarod is a busy place where helicopters and large touring-company planes ferry tourists to picturesque Puntilla Lake.

This year, about a dozen small planes were on hand. Visitors, tourists and a small party of bison hunters milled around a firepit as hot dogs came off the grill. Most of them were maskless, though race-affiliated veterinarians and checkers donned face coverings.

Several mushers took advantage of the warm air and sunshine to nap. They spread out under parkas on sleeping pads or curled around their dogs on piles of straw.

Wade Marrs of Willow said he had slept about three minutes up to that point and was getting ready to conk out behind his sled after a fast run up to the lake.

“It’s way better than it has been the last couple years,” he said of the trail.

One of the biggest changes in this year’s Iditarod was the cancellation of the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday and a stripped-down restart the next day at Deshka Landing. Several mushers said the changes meant more time, less hassle moving dogs around and simplified logistics.

“I think having that day off really helped,” Marrs said, noting there were still crowds of supporters cheering mushers around Deshka Landing on Sunday. “We were still scrambling last minute just like always.”

A few dozen feet away, Paige Drobny of Cantwell was dropping hunks of meat in a boiling pot to feed her dogs.

“For dinner tonight we have ground beef with beef fat, some beaver dust and some kibble,” Drobny said.

Beaver dust is the fine particles kicked off the saw when Drobny cuts down 50 pounds of ground beaver for dog snacks.

“We package it for some flavor,” she said.

Race judge Andy Angstman said teams had been moving through the Rainy Pass checkpoint in ways he hadn’t seen before.

“By late morning we had a rush of teams,” he said as he sat in a small tent held up with log poles. “This morning they were really spaced out, then there was a bulk of teams.”

He chalked it up to the restart at Deshka Landing being 10 miles farther into the route than a normal year, making mushers adjust their run-rest schedule as they head toward Nikolai.

“I think it’s gonna be a really fast race all of the way,” Angstman said.

From Rainy Pass, mushers climbed further up the Alaska Range toward the pass itself, nestled between crags of rotting rocks and wind-thrashed slopes that glittered in the late-day sun. Even with decent snow and cold, the wind in this area has been intense all winter. The nearby Tatina River is scoured down to gray gravel speckled with pockets of flat, white snow and marbled by braids of faintly blue river ice.

At the Rohn checkpoint, on the other side of the pass, a small cabin tucked in a dense thicket of spruce puffed gray wood smoke into the air. Gusts of wind that reached 35 mph sent the stand of spruce creaking.

Front-runners hurried through their chores. Ryan Redington of Skagway paced up and down his gangline, snacking his dogs before chugging a cup of coffee and taking off, the first to begin the 75-mile run to Nikolai. A fat bale of hay was lashed to his sled for when he rested his dogs later down the trail.

Aaron Burmeister of Nenana took drop bags and supplies to his team, putting off the inevitable task of repairing a busted drag mat until his animals were cared for. Dallas Seavey handled his dog chores even though he had not slept since setting out Sunday.

“Lotta good dog teams out here making the most of this trail,” Seavey said.

Seavey, a four-time winner, seemed impressed at the tempo of his fellow competitors.

“I’m surprised that everybody came to the same conclusion,” he said. “It seems like everybody took a similar amount of rest. They broke it up very differently, but they took a similar amount of rest.”

The trail thus far had been uneventful, as predictable as the Iditarod trail can be.

“The big difference is the length of the race,” Seavey said. “Everybody feels a sense of urgency, a little bit of unknown (about) how fast we’re gonna have to go.”