NOME — Fierce winds on the final push to Nome hounded several top mushers in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with more than half of the current field of competitors crossing the finish line by Wednesday evening.
Eddie Burke Jr. claimed the Rookie of the Year title with his seventh-place finish Tuesday night, adding a new face to a top-10 contingent otherwise filled with veteran Iditarod mushers.
Finishers found themselves contending with punishing winds along sections of the trail between White Mountain and Nome, in the final stage of the nearly thousand-mile race.
Matt Hall mushed through blowing and drifting snow in the last miles between Safety and Nome before conditions stilled to a calm and sunny afternoon.
Hall arrived at 5:21 p.m. Tuesday in fourth place, outfitted in voluminous over-whites severely soiled around the knees after more than a week on the trail.
“It was really challenging trails today coming into here, being able to maintain speed over 4 1/2 miles an hour because the trail itself was drifted in,” the musher from Two Rivers said as his dogs wolfed down congratulatory pork chops.
Hall said his voice was hoarse from “geeing and hawing” the team to keep them on the edge of the trail for so many miles.
Jessie Holmes of Brushkana and Kelly Maixner arrived next, in fifth and sixth place respectively. Both arrived with 10 dogs in harness, the largest teams to finish in the top-10 field.
For the first chunk of the race, Holmes was trading positions with defending champion Brent Sass at the very front of the field. But along the Yukon River, his pace slowed and he dropped several spots back as the chase pack — including eventual champion Ryan Redington, runner-up Pete Kaiser and third-place finisher Richie Diehl — leapfrogged past him.
“I set out to try to race to win, and I did that. Then I seen the signs of fatigue in the dogs, and I wanted to finish with a strong team like I always have, so I made some adjustments,” Holmes said.
“And I was still able to race in the end,” he added.
Holmes was running more than two hours behind Kelly Maixner when he left White Mountain, but made up the distance without realizing it.
“I was lollygagging around, snacking, having a smoke before Safety,” Holmes said of the final checkpoint 22 miles from Nome. The checkers there told him he was within striking distance of Maixner, and he kicked things into high gear, springing forward to another position.
Holmes was part of a group of mushers who came to the coast in the fall to do repair work after the storms from Typhoon Merbok. While working in Golovin, he was badly injured, and he said the journey back through the town this race carried special meaning.
“One of the most heartwarming experiences ever was going through Golovin last night and everybody coming out there. It was really emotional, in a good way,” Holmes said.
When he reached Nome a few minutes after 7 p.m. Tuesday, his dogs were barking, tugging and leaping like they had more miles they wanted to run.
Nearly an hour after Holmes came Maixner, cheered by four of his children, who screamed “DAD” at the top of their lungs as he mushed toward them down Front Street.
Sixth place is the Big Lake musher’s best finish to date. He drove a team of dogs belonging to his friend, five-time champion Dallas Seavey, who was in the race chute greeting the animals.
After running a fast, relatively easy race, Maixner said, the last leg from White Mountain was brutal.
“I was pretty excited leaving White Mountain. I was really excited! I had nobody two hours in front of me, nobody two hours behind me,” he said, adding that he was prepared to relax, enjoy the scenery and final run with the dogs. “And then the wind came. And there was no more enjoyment.”
“That was the worst I’ve seen it blowing, and my leaders just got their brains fried,” he said. “The whole way in, they would not stay on the trail, and just kept running off into the middle of nowhere.”
Maixner looked wrung out, wind-scorched, with a fat icicle dangling off his chin like a stalactite.
“My chin’s OK, my ear might fall off,” Maixner said as one of his progeny hugged him and asked after his condition.
“I won’t say ‘never again,’ but I’m not doing it next year,” he said of the Iditarod.
Burke Jr. of Anchorage arrived on Front Street at 11:37 p.m. Tuesday, to a small crowd that stood in biting wind. The first race rookie to finish, he took seventh place.
Burke Jr. has been mushing for only about five years — and racing for just three.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the least experienced person in the field,” he said.
His race almost went disastrously awry when he fell off his sled 18 miles from the Eagle Island checkpoint. Hunter Keefe, his competitor for Rookie of the Year, gave him a ride to the checkpoint.
At the finish, he called Keefe “a true sportsman.”
“Hunter Keefe is a stand-up guy and a great dog man,” he said. “He was willing to compromise his race to give me a ride so I didn’t have to walk.”
From Eagle Island, Burke had a smoother ride, thanks to lead dogs Charlie and Dudley.
“Anything I asked, they did it,” he said.
He also encountered fierce winds in the final stretch. “It was enough to blow me off the trail,” Burke said.
Standing in the race chute, thoughts turned to a first post-trail meal.
“What’s good?” Burke Jr. asked. “What’s open?”
Matthew Failor of Willow, Danish musher Mille Porsild and Wade Marrs — who was raised in Knik but now lives in Wisconsin — rounded out the top 10 mushers to arrive, each hitting Front Street in the early hours of Wednesday. (Also around that time, veteran musher Eric Kelly had decided to scratch in Unalakleet “in the best interest of his team,” according to the Iditarod Trail Committee. That made Kelly, whose dog team was in good health, the fourth person to pull out of the race this year.)
Failor said he’d had to walk in front of his dogs along a particularly difficult stretch of wind because they were being blown off the trail.
“I walked in front of them. I was this close to turning back to that shelter cabin,” he said. “It was really challenging.”
The eighth-place finish is his first time in the top 10 in more than a decade straight of entering the Iditarod.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try nine times,” he said.
Porsild, arriving ninth, said high temperatures early in the race had taken a toll on her dogs. “I had to send four dogs home by Takotna,” she said. “I was actually kinda doubting we were going to make it to Nome.”
But despite “the most windy stuff I’ve ever run Alaska huskies in,” they made it.
How was she doing?
“Fantastic, can’t you tell?” she said, tired and deadpan, her face illuminated by a headlamp. “But I mean, I love what I do. I love being with the dogs.”
Wade Marrs arrived in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday and rushed to his toddler son, ensconced in a puffy snowsuit.
“Hey buddy! Hi! How are you dude? Did you get to see Jett?” Marrs said, referring to his lead dog.
He scooped his son up on the platform, and they went to see Jett.
Loren Holmes and Emily Mesner contributed reporting to this story.