As the leader of the Iditarod pack in McGrath, Seavey draws a lot of attention — but his focus stays on his dogs

McGRATH — Dallas Seavey pulled off the Kuskokwim River and into the checkpoint here at exactly 4 p.m. Tuesday.

For the next hour and a half, he methodically worked through an elaborate set of essential chores with the kind of focus that he’s hoping will win him a fifth Iditarod title.

It began with a swab jabbed up his nose by a stranger, a mandatory COVID-19 testing precaution for every musher coming into McGrath. Even with a foreign object swirling halfway up his nasal cavity, cameras and questions hovered around him like mosquitoes in June.

“Are you staying?”

“How was the run?”

“Where do you want to park your team?”

For arriving first to McGrath, Seavey earned a beautiful pair of beaver mitts and a hat, but pleaded to put off some of the pomp attached to their bestowal until he could get the booties off his dogs’ paws. Abundant puddles of overflow along the river had left them caked in ice. His own boots, as well.

Seavey deferred what questions he could and guided his string of dogs into a choice spot in the dog lot, installed this year to confine race activity as much as possible. Earlier in the day, a snowmachiner dragging a wooden pallet lined out parking lanes beside bales of straw. All afternoon, spectators noted it was the most orderly Iditarod dog lot in recent memory.

Seavey’s first task was yanking off dozens of frosted dog booties.

Everyone in the lot was masked. Even outside, COVID-19 protocols were enforced strictly enough that the race marshal chided a young woman for not wearing a mask. Her mother sent her to retrieve one from the truck, but a volunteer handed her one before she got that far.

Seavey had trouble keeping his thick neck gaiter over his nose, a requirement for it to qualify as a mask. The constant bending, standing, talking, and head turning kept tugging the heavy fabric back down below his chin.

“Your test is negative,” a race official told Seavey casually as he was mid-chore.

“I’m happy to hear it!” Seavey exclaimed.

Not long after that, Seavey agreed to re-enact the moment for the benefit of an Iditarod Insider cameraman who didn’t catch it the first time around.

Once more, the volunteer told Seavey he did not have the coronavirus. Seavey’s staged response was more celebratory than the original.

“I’m not in a hurry to feed these guys,” Seavey told a veterinarian. He wanted to wait a bit so the dogs could cool down from a warm run through the heat of the afternoon.

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

Two or three vets at a time inspected dogs, asking questions or requesting details on issues Seavey flagged for them.

The next chore was squeezing goo from a tube into each dog’s maw. Seavey explained to the inquiring vets that it was a “probiotic, prebiotic” flavored paste he’d learned about while mushing in Norway. He expounded on the benefits as he calmly wrenched open dog jaws with his free hand.

Seavey never stopped working. He batted away requests for his attention that demanded too much bandwidth. The dogs were his focus.

“I’m gonna give them my attention first, they deserve it,” he told a television reporter. “Once I’m done with that, I’m happy to chit-chat.”

“Everything’s going well,” Seavey said to race marshal Mark Nordman.

Nordman mentioned Aliy Zirkle’s scratch, which puzzled Seavey. He’d not yet heard news that had rippled outward from Rohn overnight and all day long about a serious concussion Zirkle sustained on the glare ice along the Tatina River 5 miles out from the checkpoint.

“Man, that lady deserves some breaks every once in a while,” Seavey said.

It made him worry about the same glare ice on the way back into Rohn.

[Zirkle suffered a concussion and other injuries in ‘significant impact’ coming into Rohn, Iditarod officials say]

The trail winding down from the wooded cabin checkpoint there is wind scoured. On his way across, Seavey said he had trouble staying on the marked trail, running over “gravel, driftwood, just getting drug through all sorts of crap. It was not pretty.”

“Every year, what gets me through that is thinking, ‘I only have to do that once a year,’ " Seavey said with a weary laugh. “And this year, I gotta go turn around and come right back.”

He was even more worried about the hills in the Farewell Burn. The north side of those hills, out of the sun, have snow as mushers descend them in the first half of the race. But on the way back, they’ll be speeding down dry, snowless south-facing hills that could prove calamitous to sleds and bodies alike.

“The burn is gonna be brutal,” Seavey said. He said he was considering dropping dogs in Nikolai on the way back, reducing his 14-dog team to eight to reduce their power on such precarious stretches of trail.

A half-hour into his arrival, Seavey hadn’t had a sip of water or a snack. But as he waited for some food to cook for his dogs, he rubbed a sore wheel dog and discreetly packed a plug of chew into his lip, a minor indulgence amid a series of repetitive tasks.

The first course of food Seavey made for his dogs was a soup thick with chunked meat, kibble and fat, ladled into plastic dishes.

The dogs gobbled it up from a standing position, one even testing the length of his neckline to steal scraps from a neighbor who had stepped away to relieve himself.

“Why are you so perfect all the time?” Seavey asked of a white dog who ate its pile of meat-gruel with exceptional neatness, leaving nothing but a tidy stain on the snow.

He walked up and down the line, inspecting food piles, trading scraps between animals, coaxing hesitant eaters to dig in by dipping his fingers into their bowls to fish out appetizing meat hunks.

“I’ve kinda been spoiling them. Usually I’m a hard-ass,” Seavey said, doling out a second course: round discs of frozen salmon. “Watch the fingers,” he said in a sing-song voice to a snappish dog.

The third course: blocks of frozen chicken skins, plopped down like Rice Krispies squares for dessert.

Seavey is running a team composed of not only his dogs, but his father Mitch’s, too. Both have championships kennels.

“This is a really interesting team. Athletically, I think they are the best I’ve ever worked with. But the problem is, I can’t just get ‘em calmed down like I generally would a dog team,” he said. “These guys still want to go 10 miles an hour every time we take off.”

Riding the drag mat to keep them from burning up at a faster pace means more tugging at the harness, and potentially more sore muscles.

Even so, he made great time into McGrath. With more than 100 miles knocked off this year’s modified route, Seavey is running an altered strategy.

“We’ve been more aggressive than we would have been on a true thousand-mile race,” he said. His competitors are doing the same, he noted, testing when to rest their dogs. “We don’t know what the right pace is.”

Seavey could be set up well up if he takes his mandatory 24-hour rest in McGrath, as Nordman expected him to do (mushers no longer have to officially declare their mandatory rests). He would come off his hold right as Wednesday’s daytime warmth gives way to the cool of the night.

“The first three days of the race is really just about setting up,” Seavey said of the push to get to the 24-hour rest.

“The exciting part is the last third,” he added. “This is just the prep, really.”

At 5:23 p.m., well over an hour after arriving, Seavey finally had time for an interview with reporters, answering questions about trail conditions, his run, his feelings on how his race was going so far.

A few minutes later, at 5:29 p.m., 2019 champion Pete Kaiser, from Bethel, arrived and began handling a similar litany of chores.

Of course, the second musher in doesn’t have the nearly the crowd vying for their attention, and can work relatively undisturbed. The clamor and demands are the cost of arriving at the head of the pack.