Mushers are often quick to point out that the dogs are the true athletes of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and that the humans are merely coaches. This year, dogs weren’t always the only creatures that racers needed to manage.
Bison, moose and horses also kept racers and officials on their toes this year.
As Dan Kaduce of Chatanika crossed the Farewell Burn on his way to Rohn on Sunday, he noticed bison tracks in the newly fallen snow. Kaduce said he knew plains bison frequent the area, known to mushers as “the buffalo tunnels,” but he hadn’t spotted any in his two previous Iditarod races.
“I was really hoping to see them,” Kaduce said.
He got his wish and then some. Kaduce said he soon spotted seven to 10 bison grouped tightly a couple hundred yards away and pulled out his camera. He thought, “Oh, this is going to be awesome.”
But as he closed in, he realized the bison were blocking the trail and had no intention of yielding.
“They weren’t moving, even though my dogs were barking heavily,” Kaduce said.
Kaduce suspects the adult bison may have been protecting young ones. One bull faced the team and stomped at the snow, he said.
“He was just kind of holding his ground. They shake their head back and forth, kind of showing you their horns,” he said.
Kaduce set his snow hook and pulled out his ax, a mandatory item for Iditarod mushers. He chopped at a nearby dead tree hoping the noise would shoo the animals away.
No such luck.
“I ended up chopping the top off one of these trees and then I threw it at him, and that got them running down the trail away from me,” he said. “But they would only go about a hundred yards and then stop again. They wouldn’t leave the trail.”
Kaduce said he successfully moved the bison multiple times, but it took about 20 minutes before they moved out of the Iditarod Trail. The bison — descendants of animals that were transplanted from Montana nearly a century ago, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — were about 25 yards away as Kaduce and his dogs mushed by.
“As soon as they got off the trail, I zoomed right by them as quick as I could to get past them,” he said.
The nerve-wracking moment provided a performance boost for his team as he finished the run into Rohn.
“I got great speed out of them after that,” he said.
The rest of the race went great, he said. Kaduce took 16th place this year, his personal-best result.
Horses turned Puntilla Lake into a no-sleep zone for dog teams on their return trip through the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Race marshal Mark Nordman said he closed the area because the horses had been drawn to the hay used when the race passed through the first time.
The Perrins family, who operates Rainy Pass Lodge, keeps 19 horses there, Nordman said. Most of the year they roam freely, according to the lodge’s website. Mushers normally use straw to bed their dogs during rests, but the race sends hay to Rainy Pass in case it becomes forage for the horses.
“When we came back, (the horses) were still milling around and they were still interested in eating more as teams came in,” Nordman said.
Nordman said he was concerned about the proximity of the horses to the dog teams. Mushers were notified in Rohn to adjust their plans, Nordman said. He said the change didn’t affect the outcome of the race.
Fairbanks mushers Jeff Deeter and Jessie Royer had their path blocked by a moose for about 45 minutes around 1 a.m. Monday.
Royer said Deeter asked her if she was packing a gun when she caught up to him about 8 miles from Skwentna. Royer, whose other passions include competitive mounted shooting, did not. Though she’s no stranger to animal encounters while mushing, she was uneasy about what she saw in the beam of her headlamp on the trail.
“I’m used to black angus bulls and I’ve had bison charge me,” said Royer, who divides her time between Alaska and Montana. “I can go after them pretty scary and usually get them to move. And I was hollering, trying to act real big. She just was all puffed up, head down, ears out, and just walking at you.”
The stubborn moose bluff-charged toward the team a couple times, she said, despite their efforts to scare it off by banging on pots and pans.
“The more we tried to chase her, the more she kept coming back at the dog teams,” she said.
Royer said she and Deeter, momentarily at a loss for what to do, decided to dial back the pressure on the moose. Eventually, the moose wandered away, but it remained on the trail. They followed at a distance for about three-quarters of a mile, then the moose took off for good.
Royer arrived in Willow to take 13th place in her 19th Iditarod finish. Deeter placed 12th, his best in five Iditarods.