With a climb through the Alaska Range and a run down the Yukon River now behind them, Iditarod mushers have only to tackle the Bering Sea coast before they cross the finish line in Nome. But there’s still a third of the race to go. Overnight, the front-runners left Kaltag for Unalakleet. It’s the longest run of the race. KUAC’s Emily Schwing caught up before they set off.
The Iditarod trail travels 225 miles along the Yukon River. It’s a series of runs Montana musher Jesse Royer says she can do without.
“I hate the river because it’s flat and boring and you go forever and you feel like you’re on a big treadmill and it’s like a big sugar bowl out there at the moment. If it was a good trail and you could really travel, that would be one thing, but it’s just like running in sugar,” Royer said.
Royer was sixth to arrive in Kaltag, but she stayed much longer than others. Race rules require teams to take an eight hour mandatory rest at any of the four checkpoints along the river. Kaltag is her last opportunity.
“So I’m probably only running around 15th or so because there’s a whole bunch of teams coming up the river that are gonna catch me, because they’ve already done their eight,” Royer said.
The run on the river was rough. Teams were rained on and pummeled by wind. Then, they slogged through deep, loose snow in the hot sunshine. Martin Buser came in first to Kaltag, but he lost a significant amount of time on the river. He joked about it as he bedded down his dogs.
“It was horrible, it was torture, I felt like I was going backwards!,” Buser said.
Buser ‘s team laid down in the straw and drifted off almost immediately. They relinquished their lead to last year’s second place finisher Aliy Zirkle, who stopped only briefly in Kaltag to pick up a few things.
Zirkle had already rested outside the checkpoint. Her small, alert dogs waited as she packed her sled with snacks and gear for another stop up the trail. She made a point to grab a pair of dry socks.
“Everything is wet, my sleeping bag, my feet…,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle tried to move fast, but not fast enough. Mitch Seavey came by just as she was leaving.
Zirkle never explained her plan. But she took off with a furrowed brow, determined to get to Unalakleet, and the Bering Sea Coast beyond.