Generally, the first few days of the Iditarod aren’t yet a race — mushers are typically running on set schedules that are part of a larger strategy that doesn’t become evident until later on. Plus, variables like weather, trail conditions, technical terrain and wild animals along the route haven’t yet thrown wrenches into people’s plans.
Competitive positioning isn’t usually clear until teams come off their mandatory 24-hour rests in the days ahead.
First, let’s go over a few notable occurrences Sunday and Monday before jumping into a more technical explanation of where the event now stands.
Mackey on the sidelines, and an announcer’s misstep at the restart
Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey is not running this year, but nevertheless he was on hand for Sunday’s restart in Willow.
In a short video from Iditarod Insider, the race’s official media operation, Mackey reflected on watching the race for the very first time from the boisterous sidelines as revelers on Crystal Lake, not far from the starting line, cheered passing mushers.
“It stings a little bit, no doubt. But as everybody knows, I have other things I’m dealing with,” Mackey said.
In August, the musher and single father of two young children said he had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time. It followed a string of tragedies and health challenges, from the death of his partner in an ATV accident to a positive drug test during the 2020 Iditarod and long-standing issues with Raynaud’s syndrome.
“Couldn’t do my treatments and raise kids and train dogs,” Mackey said in the interview.
As he spoke, passing mushers — his colleagues and friends — high-fived or shouted out salutations to him.
“At least one to 10 days a year, we’re somebody. This event has allowed us to become somebody. If it wasn’t for dog racing and this event, we’d just be people with dogs,” Mackey said as one of his young children periodically interrupted with requests for chocolate.
Back at the starting chute, an announcer misgendered one race veteran in her introduction — an incident that prompted Iditarod officials to apologize the following day.
While introducing Kaktovik musher Apayauq Reitan, the speaker stumbled over pronouns, saying “he” and “his” in running through Reitan’s mushing accomplishments and biography.
Reitan completed the Iditarod in 2019 and has since come out as a trans woman, the first to openly compete in the race. A profile about her challenges and celebration around transitioning was published last week by The Guardian, and she flew a blue, pink and white trans pride flag from her sled during Saturday’s ceremonial start in Anchorage.
“We apologize to Apayauq for misgendering her during this weekend’s events. She has our support and we will ensure that her pronouns are correct across all coverage moving forward,” the Iditarod Trail Committee said in a statement Monday.
“The Iditarod is fully supportive of the transgender community. The race has and continues to be an inclusive and safe space for this community,” the statement continued. “As part of our commitment to our transgender competitors, supporters and our loyal fanbase, we will continue to educate all of our staff, volunteers, and related race personnel about the importance of respecting this community.”
Just behind Reitan at the starting line was Eagle River rookie Matt Paveglio. A trauma nurse at an Anchorage hospital, Paveglio talked to Alaska Public Media about how mushing and preparing for his first Iditarod helped him cope with the extreme difficulties of providing health care through waves of the pandemic and the recent loss of his mother.
Trail conditions and a challenging route
As for the trail itself, so far conditions have sounded superb for a long-distance sled dog race.
“Little crusty here and there, but the dogs enjoyed it, I enjoyed it,” Knik musher Ryan Redington told an Iditarod Insider interviewer after arriving first into the Skwentna checkpoint at 9:23 p.m. Sunday.
Overnight, teams passed through the checkpoint at Skwentna, and front-pack teams passed the Finger Lake checkpoint early Monday morning on their way up the front of the Alaska Range toward the Rainy Pass checkpoint, which sits on Puntilla Lake. Temperatures on the lake had risen from negatives in the early morning to 25 degrees by 1 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. Midday, a cluster of teams was resting at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, where often mushers will wait out the midday heat before heading over the actual mountain pass and descending toward Rohn.
The section between Finger Lake and Rohn is often referred to as “grueling” or “technical.” Here’s why: The trail literally crosses a giant mountain range.
After Finger Lake, the trail climbs steeply before dropping sharply toward the Happy River via forested shelves — the so-called Happy River Steps. Then it’s up again, with some steep climbs along ravines, and portions of sidehill trail several miles long. It’s difficult, dangerous sled driving.
So that’s the first part.
After the Rainy Pass checkpoint, mushers keep ascending up Ptarmigan Valley toward the mountain saddle. At the trail’s apex, the pass is framed by imposing, steep peaks. Even in cold, snowy years, there’s generally some open water, and while trailbreaking crews do their best to cover stream crossings with ice bridges, these can degrade a bit as team after team cross. The trail then drops quickly through a gorge, which again involves alert, technical, physical sled driving, this time with gravity adding more speed and less control to the whole endeavor — particularly if teams are well rested and raring to go.
As a point of comparison: Imagine your driveway is covered in a sheet of ice as you try to cross it to check the mail. Now imagine that, somewhat ominously, it has also been peppered with boulders, random tree stumps, and the occasional coursing stream you don’t see until the water is flowing over your boot. Now imagine this driveway lasts for several miles, and you are traversing it with 14 energetic dogs who do not necessarily understand or respect your physical well-being.
In a 2019 article, rookies and back-of-the-pack mushers used words like “stunning,” “harrowing” and “wicked” to describe the Dalzell Gorge.
Then it’s onto the Tatina River for a few miles on the way to the Rohn checkpoint, which is basically a small shelter cabin in a thicket of trees. It’s a beautiful, peaceful area, but also about as austere as a checkpoint can be, which can make it a daunting spot to rest for mushers who aren’t equipped to camp out for long.
The river ice can be slick and dangerous. Last year, race veteran Aliy Zirkle fell on the glare ice while mushing along the Tatina. Though she got herself and her team into Rohn, she had to be medevaced out because of the injuries.
All those (and more) are some of the reasons mushers sound kind of daunted and jittery when they talk about this section of the trail.
After that are the Buffalo Tunnels and Farewell Burn. These are long, descending stretches on the way toward the community of Nikolai. They can be treacherous if there’s poor snow cover, with rocks, roots, stumps, dirt and occasionally an obstreperous moose or bison all par for the course. Sleds can often take a beating, and often so do the mushers.