Aliy Zirkle Leads Iditarod Mushers Out Of Tanana

Aily Zirkle's team en route to Tanana on Tuesday. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Aliy Zirkle’s team en route to Tanana on Tuesday. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

Brent Sass has been disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod for using a Wi-Fi capable iPod touch.

“I didn’t use it and I had zero intent of using it for a wifi connection in checkpoints, but I was just completely clueless. I mean I gave my dad my cell phone because I knew you couldn’t have cell phones on this race specifically and I was just ignorant.”

Brent Sass takes a moment with his dogs. The Eureka musher was disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod Tuesday night. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Brent Sass takes a moment with his dogs. The Eureka musher was disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod Tuesday night. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

Many mushers use iPods along the race trail, but because the iPod touch is capable of two-way communication, it is prohibited on the Iditarod trail.

Sass was running in 5th place when he was disqualified.

Aliy Zirkle’s team was the first out of Tanana Tuesday night, leading the field down the Yukon River toward Ruby on the race’s longest leg.

Mushers are required to take a mandatory eight-hour rest at a checkpoint along the river. Sub-zero temperatures helped some mushers decide to take the rest early.

Download Audio

When Michelle Phillips arrived in Tanana, her team still wanted to run, but Phillips decided to take a rest. She says she feels like she’s been out on the trail for much longer than two days.

“It’s just a whole different thing going through checkpoints you don’t know and the trail,” she said. “Yeah, it seems like the race has been going on for a while.”

Phillips bedded down her dogs and wrapped them in thick, warm jackets, but she wasn’t sure if she would stay a full eight hours.

“I just don’t really know what to do,” Phillips said. “I know it’s going to be cold tonight, so if I took my eight, it’s what like 6:30? (Schwing: “It’s 7.”) So, I’d be out on the river at 3, when it’s still pretty friggin’ cold.”

Rumors of night-time temperatures of 40 below zero circled the Tanana dog yard. The forecast actually called for temperatures closer to 20 below along the Yukon River – still cold enough to convince Norwegian rookie Thomas Waerner to stop for his mandatory rest.

“I don’t want to spend the night on the river and I can rest on the day time – go six or seven hours and then rest and then go again,” Waerner said.

Martin Buser tended to his team just before sunrise Tuesday in Manley. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Martin Buser tended to his team just before sunrise Tuesday in Manley. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

The next run to Ruby is the longest of this year’s route at 119 miles. Mushers may opt to split it into two or three runs. Martin Buser wouldn’t say for sure what he planned to do.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Buser said. “I have no idea what that means, splitting something up.”

Buser’s team was parked right next to Aliy Zirkle’s. She also wouldn’t say how she planned to split up the run.

“By golly I have figured that out,” Zirkle said. “Nope, I’m just going to see how it goes first. I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway.”

Regardless of the long rest, Buser wasn’t looking forward to the night ahead.

“Not at all; it’s the cold,” Buser said. “It’s as Robert Service would say ‘it’s the curse of cold I hold and it chills me down to the bone.”

“Martin’s not from the Interior,” jokes Aliy Zirkle. The two rivals traded jibes in the dog yard as Buser fed his dogs and Zirkle packed her sled to leave.

Buser: “No I’m not used to the horrible cold. I’m from the banana belt.”

Zirkle: “I’d train my dogs a lot more if I lived where Martin lives.”

But cold weather isn’t the only thing on Buser’s mind. He says he learned enough from racing out in front the last two years to know he doesn’t want to lead the field this year.

Tanana is the third checkpoint on this year's reroute Iditarod trail. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Tanana is the third checkpoint on this year’s reroute Iditarod trail.
(Photo by Emily Schwing)

“It’s very much like the peloton in the Tour de France, even though those teams are racing for themselves, when somebody has left them behind, they all work together in unison and become one incredibly strong unit and beating that unit is almost impossible,” he said.

Buser has found himself in something of a strategic quandary. He left the start line wearing bib number four, which automatically put his team up front.

“That’s the unluck or luck of the draw,” Buser said. “The bib number that I ended up with, I can’t change it, so here I am , but what I am thinking is if I take my eight, Aliy Zirkle might be leaving in front of me, then that smells up the trail a little bit and I’ll be the second in command or something.”

Teams continued in and out of the checkpoint all night. With a long stretch of river miles ahead, they will undoubtedly continue to jockey for position on what is reportedly a smooth, yet frigid trail.