Iron Dog turns into wet ride for Outside team

As a gang of Alaska snowmachine racers Wednesday celebrated their arrival at the Nome halfway point of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog wilderness race, a couple of competitors from Outside were 115 miles back along the Iditarod Trail in Golovin trying to repair a pair of snowmachines that Tuesday went down like submarines.

Dieter Strobel from Minnesota and Randy Gravatt from Idaho were just lucky that when their ships sank the water was only about waist deep -- if you can call being up to your waist in water in 15-degree temperatures lucky.

"It wasn't too bad,'' Strobel said when reached by telephone in Golovin, a village of only about 150 people on a spit between Golovin Bay and Golovin Lagoon just off the Bering Sea.

The Iditarod Trail -- followed north from near Anchorage by the Iron Dog and later the bikers and hikers of the Iditarod Trail Invitational and finally the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- goes right through the middle of town.

On Tuesday night, Strobel and Gravatt barely had time to blink before the cluster of buildings slipped into the rearview mirrors of their Arctic Cats.

"We were on a pretty good mission,'' Stroebel said.

A broken shock had forced a delay for repairs earlier in the day in Unalakleet where the Iditarod trail meets the coast, but after making repairs there the team made good time north through the villages of Shaktoolik, Koyuk and Elim. They were planning to blow through Golovin and then rest in White Mountain.

They weren't exactly winning the race, but they were doing well and happy to be only 15 or 20 minutes behind the leaders.

As they came off the ice of the bay and over the spit, the trail ahead to White Mountain looked fine. Then Strobel noticed a trail-marking lathe that seemed to be leaning over. It was a warning.

The next thing he knew, he and his partner were running on water. Strobel hit the throttle. If you are good and lucky and on a snowmachine where the power to weight ratio is high, you can run a long way on water.

Strobel, 34, and Gravatt, 52, were on heavily loaded machines required to carry a fair bit of survival gear for safety, and they were not lucky. They made it about 100 yards into the overflow before the machines floundered and sank.

"We probably went about 100 yards up to our waists, and then the people in Golovin saw us,'' said Strobel. Villagers came out to help.

"We got a really warm welcome here,'' he added. They were given a ride back to the village and warmed up in a home there.

The pair spent the night in Golovin and on Wednesday, with the tide going out and the level of the overflow dropping, villagers helped them recover their machines.

"I don't care what happens now," Strobel said Wednesday afternoon. "I just want to get to Nome and see my wife.''

Strobel is an Iron Dog rookie, but he came to north to ride as an Iron Dog trail rider last year -- a rough year with little snow north of the Alaska Range.

No Iron Doggers were seriously injured last year, but several Iditarod mushers suffered serious injuries and had to be rescued. This year, the Iditarod moved its start north to Fairbanks to find snow and eliminate the need to cross the nearly snowless Alaska Range and the absolutely snowless north slopes of those mountains.

Strobel made that sound like a good decision.

"We thought it was rough last year,'' Strobel said. "It was nothing compared to his year. I had to come to Alaska to find no snow.''

Throw in trail flooded in places by an early season melt and open water along the Bering Sea coast, and Strobel got all the adventure one could hope for in the state where the largest city markets its Big Wild Life.

Big Crazy Life might be more like it.

The race resumes at 8 a.m. Thursday. First to leave will be Scott Faeo, a 31-year-old from Wasilla who is the son of Iron Dog legend John Faeo, and partner Eric Quam, a 44-year-old from Palmer who won in 2008. They claimed the halfway price in Nome and are slated to be the first team to leave the City of Golden Sands as the world's longest, toughest snowmachine race heads back toward to a weekend finish in Fairbanks.

But the race is far from over with several former champs lurking within an hour of the leaders and some potential hazards on the route back along the coast, as Strobel and Gravatt know all too well.

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.