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Thanks to trailbreakers, Iron Dog is on track to finish Saturday at Big Lake

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: March 5, 2020
  • Published February 21, 2020

Neither deep snow nor abundant moose will keep the top Iron Dog teams from completing the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race Saturday.

A winning team is expected to reach Big Lake sometime around noon, executive director John Woodbury said Friday evening as he and others prepared the finish line on the lake ice in front of Southport Marina.

The Valley duo of Tyler Aklestad and Nick Olstad reached McGrath aboard their Ski-Doos at 6:33 p.m. Friday, leaders of the 2,395-mile race that started Sunday in Fairbanks. They decided to take an optional six-hour layover at the checkpoint, which is about 350 miles from Big Lake.

Aklestad and Olstad were one of four teams that used 20 hours of layover time Thursday and Friday in Ruby as trailbreakers worked around the clock to clear sections of trail buried by new snow, according to a race report on the Iron Dog website.

“We have feet and feet of snow and moose,” Woodbury said.

Once the race left the Yukon River at Ruby, snow and moose took center stage. Woodbury said the snow is six feet deep in places, “and that’s snow pack, not snow accumulation.”

Volunteers on snowmachines broke trail from Ruby to McGrath. Woodbury called them “bona fide snowmachining heroes."

“The hardship part was Poorman to Ophir,” he said of a nearly 100-mile stretch of trail in the Interior. “They were doing that for a day-and-a-half straight.”

Among the heroes was Roger Brown of North Pole, an Iron Dog board member who began the week as a racer and finished it as a trailbreaker. Brown was racing with Dave Wagner of California until the team scratched after Brown’s snowmachine caught fire near Kaltag.

“When his machine burned down he hitched a ride to Galena, borrowed a super-wide machine and started breaking trail with one of our checkers,” Woodbury said. “He made it halfway from Poorman to Ophir.”

Reinforcements came in the form of Bobby Frankson of Galena and Archie Agnes and Arnold Marks of Tanana.

“They picked up where Roger left off,” Woodbury said. “It was taking three hours to go 20 miles, but they kept inching forward and inching forward.”

A Friday morning trail update on the Iron Dog website shared information received from Frankson while he was at the Carlson Cross safety cabin en route to Ophir.

“We made it,” he said. “It’s a rodeo out there but there is a trail. … Just let the racers know it’s rough, it’s a rodeo.”

Outside of McGrath volunteers had to create a detour because of 20 inches of overflow on Big River, and in doing so encountered about 20 moose on the trail, Woodbury said.

“A moose today kicked one of our trailbreaker’s machines and broke the kill switch and kicked in a side panel,” he said. The volunteer — Woodbury wasn’t sure who it was — has “a new appreciation of moose and a new parts bill.”

Despite the troubles experienced by trailbreakers, Aklestad and Olstad made good time on the 63-mile run from Ophir to McGrath, making the trip in 62 minutes. Their pursuers include two-time defending champions Mike Morgan and Chris Olds, who left Ophir at 6:31 p.m. Friday, and Brad George and Tyson Johnson, who left Ophir at 6:33 p.m.

Thirteen teams remain in the race. Sixteen teams have scratched.