SAFETY — Aaron Peck didn’t linger at the race’s last checkpoint, a ramshackle roadhouse 22 miles from the finish line in Nome. The Canadian musher had eight dogs on his gangline, and told the veterinarian they were ready to be done with the nearly thousand-mile trip down the Iditarod Trail.
The checkpoint staff scanned his animals, looked over the vet book, scribbled a few notes and just like that, Peck was off, never dismounting his sled runners.
“I’m here for essentially emergencies,” veterinarian Nikki Preston said after Peck pulled his snow-hook and mushed off.
“At the end of the day, you’re not gonna stop here and rest,” Preston said. “They’ve gone 960 miles at this point. Just keep moving, get to the finish.”
Two hours and 52 minutes later, Peck and his team would arrive under the burled arch at the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 15th team to make it. But back in Safety, that wasn’t yet assured. And Peck didn’t know about the surprise in store for him down the trail.
The life of a bartender in Safety
The Safety Roadhouse is unlike any other checkpoint along the race route. For one thing, mushers arrive there having rested for a mandatory eight hours in White Mountain, 55 miles ago. They have few needs and rarely stop in or take much in the way of supplies. If the weather doesn’t suck, which it often does, they want simply to keep mushing on.
Another quirk: The checkpoint is a bar.
“I feel like I’ve worked my whole life to be a vet in a bar, and now I’m getting to do it,” laughed Preston, who lives in a dry cabin in Fairbanks.
“We’re all camped back here,” said Connie Groat, a former Nomite who came back to keep the Roadhouse humming during its annual two-week opening in March to accommodate the Iditarod, as well as a local snowmachine race and anyone else who shows up looking for a cup of hot coffee or a beer. She thrust her thumb toward a back room behind the bar, converted into a haphazard bunkhouse this year for the race volunteers staffing the checkpoint and people in need of shelter, since the real living quarters floated off during last fall’s flood.
“The red and green roof, that was right out the back door,” said Wendy Atkinson, another of the barkeeps, pointing out the window at said red-and-green-roofed structure several hundred yards away. It used to be the roadhouse’s domicile, with a bathroom, living room and stoves, but drifted yonder in the September storm.
“That’s the life of a bartender in Safety, Alaska,” Atkinson explained to a couple newly arrived at the Roadhouse from Nome via helicopter, part of a tour group taking turns ferrying out from town to get a look at the race’s last checkpoint.
[His childhood dream was to finish the Iditarod. He just did it, and might be having more fun than anyone.]
The pair — Lisa and Mark Haag from “right outside Houston,” Texas — were hunting for a marker to sign a $1 bill and staple it to the wall, or ceiling, or wainscoting maybe. Real estate in the Roadhouse is hard to come by, with every surface already papered over with desecrated legal tender bearing squiggled signatures, graffitied jokes and dates marking visits.
It was the Haags’ first time to Safety. After seeing the start of last year’s Iditarod, they were hooked.
“We loved it so much, we decided to come again,” Lisa Haag said.
They spent this race hopping around to different lodges and locales.
Meanwhile, snowmachiners trickled in. Some came from Nome, daytrippers finding an excuse to get out, snack on a hamburger or enjoy a cocktail. Others arrived from the other direction, having ridden the full trail to catch friends or spouses competing in the big race by the time they finished.
The spot offers amenities that are hard to come by on the rugged coastline, but the logistics for keeping the building warm and operations running are cumbersome. The liquor, like the food and firewood piled in the corner, is ferried in on the back of a haul sled. Groat got some hot water going by shoveling snow near the porch into 5-gallon Home Depot buckets, lugging it inside and depositing it into big metal pots atop the stoves.
A hot dog at the roadhouse goes for $8. Spendy, sure, but it comes with all the fixings: ketchup, yellow mustard, half-frozen diced onions in a Tupperware container. Here, it’s an all-cash enterprise: There’s no internet, no card reader, no Venmo at the Safety Roadhouse.
There’s been one roadhouse or another out here ever since Port Safety organized as a town on Dec. 5, 1899, spillover from the gold rush down the road in Nome. But the buildings burn down (1910), are rebuilt, get storm flooded (1974), are refurbished, burn down again (1983) and ownership changes hands in the process.
This particular iteration of the Safety Roadhouse has been in the Reader family since July 1957, when Johnny Reader bought it from Herbert James, who had bought it just five years prior from old James Kealiher, who had bought it from — and on and on and on. For decades now, it’s been a fixture of the Iditarod, the beginning of the end for battered, weary, red-eyed mushers.
“It’s been going on for years and years and years, you couldn’t stop it now,” Groat said.
‘You have to just go’
The Roadhouse has hosted its share of dramatic moments over dozens of Iditarods, with would-be champions hunkering there to wait out ground storms, one eye checking the weather and the other on the competition. The day prior, it had been blowing 40 mph and gusting up to 60, Groat said. The few mushers that pulled in looked shell-shocked at what they’d been through, and terrified of what more was in store.
“Either it was the middle of the wind and they were panicked, or they looked like they had come through some shit,” Preston said of the elite teams that steadily rolled through on their way toward top-10 finishes.
Two of those mushers — she declined to specify which — who arrived amid the worst of the gales weren’t sure if it was safe to go back out.
“They were both like, ‘Do we keep going?’ ” Preston recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, you have to just go.’ ”
She told them it would only be bad for another few miles until the geography changed around and they’d catch a tail wind.
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Sure enough, the trail in winds down the coastline, a sweeping terrain locked up tight this time of year by the cold and ice. Pummeled by dog paws, sled runners and snowmachine tracks, the trail itself is about as soft as cement, the snow sculpted and scoured into a hard-packed pumice. The one reprieve is a brushy thicket of willows around the back side of Cape Nome, where the twiggy chutes break enough wind that the snow stays fluffy, speckled with animal tracks.
As Peck was mushing through the area, there was a big flock of clunky white ptarmigan scuttling under the boughs, ascending sporadically to swoop on to the next thicket whenever they startled.
Peck passed an area racked and rearranged last fall by the Merbok storm, evidence of the disfigurement still evident in the clusters of mangled fish camps and spiky bundles of driftwood poking through the snow cover like palisades or anti-tank obstacles in no-man’s land.
He hauled up one last hill on the cape’s rear, and from that rise comes the first view of town, of the finish, of the promised land: dark geometric lines puncturing the sweeping white curvatures of the land and the mountains and the ice. There it was, just a little farther, just a few hundred more trail markers until the icy pumice yielded to icy asphalt on Front Street, until sidewalks and saloons and an ending to a saga, an ordeal, an adventure.
By then the fierce winds had degraded to medium-strength breezes. Peck and his dogs made the 22 miles without incident. And there, to his surprise, waiting under the burled arch was his family, wife and four kids, all of whom he’d thought were back in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
“To be up here and not be able to share it with them was a heartbreaker,” Peck said at the finish line, ringed by jacketed tots. “Even the kids wanted to be here. I wanted them to be here.”
His wife, Eva, managed to drive the whole brood through Canada and into Anchorage, then catch a flight to greet Peck in person.
“I’m just so grateful and thankful that they’re here to be able to share this moment, because it’s the culmination of years of hard work,” Peck said.
Emily Mesner and Michelle Theriault Boots contributed reporting.