Technical difficulties, pizza deliveries and life lessons: Scenes from the Iditarod in Unalakleet

Unalakleet, Iditarod

UNALAKLEET -- Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers streamed into this Norton Sound community on a clear, calm day Sunday. Here’s a look at activity at the checkpoint at Mile 714.

Special delivery

Typically at checkpoints, Iditarod mushers feed their dogs before they even think about feeding themselves. But fresh pizza delivered right to the sled after 700 miles of racing can be tough to resist.

Dan Kaduce, Mille Porsild and Michelle Phillips were among the racers who paused to eat a slice as they tended to their teams Sunday. Each was surprised that someone had delivered to them by way of Peace On Earth Pizza, a local restaurant.

Kaduce said his Iditarider from the ceremonial start hooked him up.

“I had no clue. That was quite the timing,” he said.

[Race update: It’s Brent Sass’ Iditarod to lose as Dallas Seavey chases him up the coast]

Unalakleet, Iditarod
Unalakleet, Iditarod
Unalakleet, Iditarod

Jonathan Hanson delivered pies for the business his parents own. They don’t advertise the service, but word has spread. He said his father, Bret Hanson, has been bringing pizzas to mushers for more than two decades.

“People have just grown to know about us. We get orders from fans and family and people all over the world for different mushers,” Jonathan Hanson said.

“That’s the culture of the Iditarod. It’s like nothing else, you know?” he said. “The community all comes together.”

Hanson said he tries to catch mushers when they aren’t busy to hand off their pizza. But sometimes a musher rushes through the checkpoint, and the connection is missed. That happened Sunday. Richie Diehl stayed only six minutes and left without his pie.

“The people who ordered the pizza for him just said give it to the volunteer team,” Hanson said.

A crack and a snap

Unalakleet, Iditarod

Mille Porsild had big plans this year, she said. Those plans changed dramatically 4 or 5 miles out of Kaltag.

“I heard a very, very light crack. And I looked down and my one runner broke,” she said in Unalakleet. “And then a second went by and I heard another crack, and it wasn’t very loud. And the other runner broke.”

It wasn’t a singular impact that did the damage, she figured, but the toll taken by lots of moguls.

Porsild said the whole contraption hung together by the plastic of the runners. Mitch Seavey and Pete Kaiser helped. Prior to Unalakleet, she mushed with wrenches and hose clamps acting as a splint. It made for slow going.

“It’s like applying a brake to the dogs all the time. So at the same time I’m telling them to go, they can also hear what sounds like a brake,” she said.

Unalakleet, Iditarod

In Unalakleet, a local musher brought her a sled to use. She appeared to have trouble attaching a plastic runner to it, however. Porsild has just two sleds, she said, and she sent the other to McGrath for the Iditarod.

“Honestly, right this very minute, I have no plan for anything,” said Porsild, who finished fifth in last year’s Iditarod. “Five miles ago, I still didn’t know that I was going to make it in here.”

“It’s been humbling,” she said.

Unalakleet, Iditarod
Unalakleet, Iditarod

Chad Stoddard has been making do with a busted sled for even longer than Porsild. Ten miles out of Ophir, he heard a pop when he went over a mogul.

“I saw that the aluminum runner had snapped in half,” he said.

The sled held together for about 50 miles, but another steep mogul ripped the taildragger portion completely off. He said he limped into Cripple and left that portion there.

Stoddard lashed his gear to the front sled bag and continued. But on the damaged sled, he barely had a place to stand with his left foot.

“We’ve been riding it ever since like that, which has been tough,” he said. “You can’t steer the sled like it normally would steer, so I get an extra hard workout in just trying to hold on to the handlebar and trying to maneuver around all the obstacles.”

“I’m not giving up,” said Stoddard, who finished last year’s Iditarod, his first, in 23rd place.

Unalakleet, Iditarod
Unalakleet, Iditarod

Both Porsild and Stoddard left Unalakleet on borrowed sleds from Mitch Seavey and Travis Beals, respectively. Stoddard said one day, he might look back and find the whole ordeal to be an invaluable experience, he said.

“This is a tough lifestyle to live, but it’s very rewarding at the same time. There’s always challenges,” he said. “I guess that’s part of what makes it enduring and satisfying.”

“The best things are not always easy,” he said.

Lesson plans

Unalakleet, Iditarod
Unalakleet, Iditarod

As light faded Sunday, mushers trickled in and out of the checkpoint. Several people gathered to watch 2019 champ Pete Kaiser pack up and go. Before Joar Leifseth Ulsom headed inside for a nap, he helped Travis Beals get his team pointed back on the trail. Mitch Seavey departed moments before Lev Shvarts arrived, headlamps lighting the way for both teams.

Jim Deprez of Hilliard, Ohio, planned to stay up late to take in the whole scene.

Deprez, a third-grade teacher at Ridgewood Elementary School near Columbus, has been teaching Iditarod in his elementary school classrooms for 15 years, he said. He said that to actually be in rural Alaska and see the places he’s been reading about for so long has been hard to put into words.

“Seeing the frozen Bering Sea and Norton Sound and that sort of thing, seeing it in person after just seeing pictures and stuff, has been incredible,” Deprez said.

Unalakleet, Iditarod

Deprez is the Iditarod’s 2022 Teacher on the Trail. That means he was selected to spend a month in Alaska doing presentations in school, traveling to checkpoints, helping where needed and posting online daily about his experiences.

His students follow his position with the race’s GPS tracker. He hopes his experiences will spark their curiosity.

Unfortunately for Deprez, who has long dreamed of filling the Teacher on the Trail role, he’s had a hard lesson to share also. He tested positive for COVID-19 before the race got underway. That meant he missed the ceremonial start in Anchorage and couldn’t travel up the trail until recently. He caught up with the race for the first time in Unalakleet on Saturday.

“That was tough, but I’ve kind of spun it that it’s kind of a good lesson for the kids,” he said. “Things don’t always work out, but you’ve got to power through.”

As night fell, Deprez said he hoped to catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

“I’ll be trying to soak in as much as I possibly can over this next week or so before I head back,” he said.

Unalakleet, Iditarod

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at