OPHIR — Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers are contending with an unprecedented situation this year, one that is stirring anxiety as racers ruminated during their 24-hour mandatory rests on Wednesday.
For the first time, the Iditarod is following an out-and-back route. That means competitors now have a clear idea what’s in store when they go back over daunting sections of trail.
“On a normal year, you just go and you hit a bad spot, and you’re through it and you just forget about it,” said race veteran Paige Drobny of Cantwell, wearing a billowy white jacket as she inspected the inside of a dog’s nostril.
“I didn’t think it was gonna be a big deal,” she said.
Until Wednesday morning, she had mostly focused on getting to Ophir and planning her 24-hour rest. Once there trepidation began creeping in.
“Now you’re gonna have anxiety for those spots that are gonna be trickier,” she said.
Drobny had just napped: two whole hours inside a thin tent, her first sleep since the race started Sunday.
Even by Iditarod standards, the accommodations at Ophir are bare-bones in the best of times. This year, with skeleton crews of volunteers and major efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the bones are barer still.
The outhouse consists of a blue tarp draped over stacks of straw bales, with a modest orange bucket inside. There was one Arctic Oven tent for mushers to rest in. It could fit about four people. Eight were on hand in the afternoon, and overflow along the trail wetted lots of gear that needed to dry out near the meager heat of the propane stove, competing for valuable tent space.
“We knew it was a tent camp,” Drobny said. “We just thought it would be a tents camp.”
The reconfigured checkpoint consists of a broad semicircle of snow tamped flat by a metal groomer. A stand of trees on a nearby knoll helped mute the wind, though every little gust made it feel colder than the 8 degrees reported on a thermometer. Temperatures were forecast to dip to minus-20 overnight.
“It’s a little less cushy than I was expecting,” Two Rivers musher Ryne Olson said while attending to her 7-year-old dog Dolly, named after Dolly Parton (her littermate, named for Loretta Lynn, doesn’t race anymore).
Olson wore trash bags for shoes, having arrived with sopping wet boots. Her outerwear was still drying in the Arctic Oven, but she was content napping outside.
“If it keeps getting colder I will make room for myself in the tent,” she said.
Olson was doing her best not to think too much about re-crossing the sections of trail from Nikolai heading back up toward Rohn and Rainy Pass. But it was impossible to block it out completely.
“That’s the challenge with an out-and-back, is you’re now aware of obstacles you’ll have to overcome,” Olson said.
She was particularly worried about a section going downhill over a glacier.
“It’s just like rocks and ice and dirt,” Olson said. “I do have chains on my sled, so I can put those down. But even still, it’s gonna be a pretty wild ride.”
Olson opted to take her 24-hour rest in Ophir in part to avoid the distractions and hubbub of the more crowded checkpoint in McGrath. The dog lot nestled between the airstrip and Kuskokwim River was bustling with dozens of teams Wednesday morning.
Girdwood musher Nic Petit spent the night inside a blue tent cover propped up on wooden trail stakes from previous races. It was a quieter option than trying to sleep in the airplane hangar set aside for mushers, where doors slammed and gusts of wind blew in every time someone went in or out.
“At least I’m used to the dog noise,” Petit said. “I sleep with them every day.”
He was nonchalant about the news that race officials had nixed a planned loop to the ghost town of Flat, citing an exceptional volume of snow in the area that’s made it hard to put in a trail.
The shortened race route will not significantly alter his race plans or schedule. Petit said the only adjustment he wishes he’d made is borrowing hockey pads or a helmet for the rough ride back.
“Going back on the (Farewell) Burn is gonna be interesting,” he said. “I wanna have a big team going back up that. ...
“I think the most scary part might be the glacier going down it, boulders on both sides. That’s gonna be fun,” he added, calmly puffing on the last half of a Camel cigarette.
Rookie musher Susannah Tuminelli of Willow didn’t mind seeing the Flat loop go. There are challenges enough without another 20 miles through deep snow.
Earlier on the trail, she tried to make mental notes of particularly obnoxious obstacles: rogue stumps, steep drops, soggy water crossings. Eventually she gave up cataloguing them all.
“I’m also trying my hardest not to stress too much and live in the moment,” she said.
But there was one stretch she thought was particularly haunting — a section of scoured ice just beyond the Dalzell Gorge a few miles from the Rohn checkpoint, which she crossed in the dark early Tuesday morning.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just like a complete sheet of dark, glassy ice,” she said. “It was the eeriest thing: Somebody lost their headlamp, and it was still on and just shining on this dark expanse of ice.”
She wasn’t the only one to pass the headlamp that night.
Sean Underwood was approaching Rohn just after midnight Tuesday and heard the sound of a helicopter pass overhead. He assumed there could be a military installation he’d never heard of in the area. He put it out of his mind.
His only information about veteran musher Aliy Zirkle’s scratch that same night was a message sent from his girlfriend via an InReach unit. It said, simply, “Zirkle scratched. Injury.”
“That’s all I know,” he said Wednesday.
When told that Zirkle had sustained a concussion and was medevaced from Rohn to Anchorage, Underwood reconsidered the helicopter and his run into the checkpoint.
“I was on the river and saw a headlamp on the river,” he said. “And I was like, ‘There’s only one way that thing comes off: by slamming your head on the ice.’ So that must have been the spot.”
It bothered him then, but he was too busy trying to keep his sled from wrapping around a tree stump or getting tipped on an exposed gravel bar. By the time he got to Rohn, he was shaking, flooded with gratitude he’d made it there in one piece.
Underwood said mushers in this year’s race don’t get to fully ease into relief after a rough stretch of trail, believing the worst is over, because this year they have to do it again. Instead of dreading the unknown, they have a pretty good idea what’s in store for them over the next several days.
“Gives me the chills thinking about it,” Underwood said.