NOME — The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s top 10 fastest finishers had all crossed beneath the burled arch in Nome by early Wednesday morning, and the top 20 will be filled out by day’s end.
Eureka musher Brent Sass was the first to cross in the pre-dawn hours, earning his first-ever Iditarod victory at 5:38 a.m. Tuesday, followed by the race’s defending champion, Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna, at 6:46 a.m.
Jessie Holmes of Brushkana flew into the chute with his team of nine dogs at 7:39 p.m. in Nome, his mustache crusted in ice.
The “Life Below Zero” reality TV star arrived to cheers and chants, further electrifying the crowd of spectators when he turned to wave. Race champion Sass, who had finished earlier that morning, hopped into the race chute to congratulate the third-place musher.
”Felt so good to be third,” Holmes said at the finish.
His dogs are young, he said: Eight of the nine he finished with had never been to Nome with him.
”I just managed ‘em correctly and they did an awesome job,” Holmes said of his team.
He had to drop a couple of lead dogs along the way due to minor orthopedic injuries, he said, which meant that the team had to make new leaders through tough trail.
Fierce winds along the Norton Sound coast caused a musher pileup in Shaktoolik as competitors spent hours trying to wait out the weather before proceeding to Koyuk and crossing the sea ice.
Chatanika musher Dan Kaduce had been right on Holmes’ tail heading into Nome, leaving 16 minutes behind him out of White Mountain.
”I wish I had went out in that storm in Shaktoolik so I didn’t have to worry about (Kaduce) this whole way,” Holmes said in Nome. “But it was fun hanging out with him.”
Holmes said he decided to stay in Shaktoolik for the night, given reports of winds that were blowing 45 mph.
”I didn’t want to do that to the young dogs and honestly, like, there’s enough hardships in this race, one more might have been the one that, you know, was over the edge,” Holmes said.
Kaduce arrived in Nome shortly after Holmes, with all 14 of the dogs he began the race with still in harness. That’s a rare feat, according to Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson.
“It’s a lot of hard work — booties and feeding and caring for all those dogs — that takes a lot of time, and it’s not a speed-enhancing drill,” Nelson said.
It’s impressive that Kaduce came in so fast, the highest finish for a full team ever, Nelson said. The accomplishment speaks not only to dog care, but things going right on the trail, he said.
“Things can happen on the trail, despite the best dog care,” Nelson said. “But no, it was phenomenal — brilliant job.”
Kaduce said that both finishing the race in fourth place and doing so with all of his dogs were equally big accomplishments.
“Getting them all here — I’m just crazy proud of them,” he said.
Leaving from Shaktoolik, Kaduce said a few mushers had gotten out before him, but his speed “really, really did us some favors.”
While Kaduce and Holmes were running close together, he said that in order to reach Holmes’ pace, he would have needed to drop four or five slower dogs.
“And I was more interested in getting the full string here, and one place, no big deal,” he said.
Race marshal Mark Nordman said Kaduce is “a good dog man” who hadn’t run the race for a while and had a dream. Nordman said Kaduce and his wife, Jodi Bailey, who has also raced in previous years, are “just on a roll. It’s been fun to watch.”
Nordman commended all four mushers who had crossed the finish line so far for how well they represent the sport and care for their dogs.
“It’s a good bunch,” he said.
The race’s 2019 champion, Pete Kaiser of Bethel, arrived at 9:45 p.m. for a fifth-place finish, with family and supporters waiting at the race chute. Kaiser said the family of the race’s first winner, Dick Wilmarth, asked him to carry a packet of his ashes down the trail.
“A total honor to do that,” Kaiser said. “Obviously, he’s from the Kuskokwim River just like I am and we’re both Iditarod winners.”
Kaiser said he appreciated the crowd being there, laughing that it kind of felt like he had won again. He highlighted his decision to do an 11.5-hour run from Koyuk to White Mountain as an example of the trust he has with his dog team.
“You have to have a connection with your team to do something like that,” he explained at the finish. “They have to trust that you’re not going to drive them too far and there’s going to be a checkpoint and straw and food coming. And so I think we built that trust throughout the whole race and we were able to that make that run last night.”
Kaiser said his dogs are totally different now and will return home feeling like Superman.
Shortly after Kaiser’s arrival, Aniak musher Richie Diehl came bounding down Front Street. Kaiser waited in the chute for the fellow Yukon-Kuskokwim musher, who completed the race at 10:02 p.m. in sixth place. The two had shared a tent in White Mountain on Monday night.
Diehl specifically complimented his dog team and said they do anything he asks of them.
“It’s hard to say that I’m proud of myself when I have a group of dogs that can do it,” Diehl said. “They’re a huge factor in it, like, you can’t just go and run a race like that with any dog — and they’re really a good group of dogs.”
Anchorage musher Chad Stoddard arrived in seventh place at 11:28 p.m. It was an impressive showing for a competitor who has only completed one other Iditarod, the 2021 race which did not pass through Nome. Stoddard ran dogs from Dallas Seavey’s kennel, and mushed hundreds of miles on a busted sled.
“I knew I would make it. Just didn’t know how,” Stoddard said under the burled arch.
Along the trail from White Mountain to Nome, Stoddard passed seasoned veteran and Nome hometown hero Aaron Burmeister, who pulled in seven minutes later.
“I think I worked harder this year than I’ve worked in 20 Iditarods to get here. Things just didn’t click,” Burmeister said in an interview at the finish line.
He ran into Nome with six dogs, far fewer than the 10 to 12 he normally has by the race’s end. He said this year he was contending with a number of minor injuries to paws and joints, and the team had run through the full spectrum of weather conditions Iditarod has to offer: high temperatures, low temperatures, rain, deep snow, wind, ice, drifts, moguls, and more.
“For the 50th anniversary, Mother Nature wanted to make sure I had a little memory of every single different event that can happen in other races,” Burmeister said. “We definitely worked for it this year.”
Just under an hour later, Knik’s Ryan Redington arrived on Front Street, and reflected briefly on what his grandfather, Iditarod founder Joe Redington, would have thought about the event reaching its 50th iteration.
“I think my grandpa would be very proud of the race,” Redington said.
In 10th place was Alberta’s Aaron Peck, cracking the top-10 for the first time in his Iditarod career, an accomplishment he called “the Holy Grail.”
An improvised decision to skip Unalakleet put Peck briefly at the head of the chase-pack heading up the coast. He blew through the checkpoint and stopped instead at a shelter cabin north of town in the Blueberry Hills. That put him out of step with a cluster of mushers who were hunkering down in Shaktoolik hoping to wait out fierce winds whipping over the sea-ice. Oblivious to the wind warnings, Peck mushed on by his fellow racers, racing in third position across Norton Bay towards Koyuk.
“They came up behind me like a stampede, but that was fun for a little while just to be out front like that in the wind,” Peck said at the finish line.
Just a single rookie looks likely to make it into the top-20. Norway’s Hanna Lyrek is mushing side-by-side with veteran Paige Drobny of Cantwell. Depending on whether they race to the finish, Lyrek is on track to be either the 19th or 20th musher to make it to Nome.
Reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed from Anchorage.