Denali musher Jeff King led the Iditarod front-runners into Galena, with Aliy Zirkle and Aaron Burmeister arriving around an hour and a half later.
The Iditarod saw its first scratch of the race, as Zoya DeNure made the decision in Tanana, citing personal reasons.
Though a handful of mushers are on their way to Galena, close to half the teams are still working on the long run between Tanana and Ruby.
If mushers were traveling the normal southern route this year, they would likely be arriving in Takotna. It’s a popular spot where mushers often take a mandatory 24-hour rest. But this is not a normal year for the Iditarod. As Emily Schwing reports, a new trail combined with cold weather and long, monotonous river miles have mushers scratching their heads.
Dog teams are roughly a third of the way into this year’s Iditarod. It’s about the time when mushers start to contemplate where they should take a mandatory 24-hour layover.
Mitch Seavey declared his when he arrived first in Ruby, but he says it wasn’t his first choice for a spot to rest long.
“Having seen the past for long enough, I start to predict the future I guess, so here we are taking a nice break,” he said.
Seavey has run 21 previous Iditarods including in 2003 – the only other time the trail was rerouted through Fairbanks. But the two-time champion isn’t relying too much on his experience from that year.
“I think things are a little different than 2003 in terms of what’s successful, what may not be so successful, run rest strategies, things like that,” Seavey said.
The Iditarod trail normally only stops in Ruby in even numbered years. On that trail, the tiny village marks the race’s halfway point. Pete Kaiser has run the northern route three times.
“It’s a little confusing to get used to a new trail and try not to jump the gun thinking you’re in Ruby, but you’re really not in Ruby,” Kaiser said. “It’s confusing. You’re here right now and you’re used to being about 500 miles from the finish, but we’re not. It’s about 700 miles, so yeah, it’s a lot to take in with a tired mind.”
Kaiser says the biggest challenge for him has been the deep cold that’s settled in throughout the Yukon River valley. In some places, mushers have reported overnight temperatures of 40 below. There’s also been a slight breeze, resulting in a wind chill.
“When you’re kicking and ski poling at 3 a.m. trying to keep warm because you’re shivering, it’s harder to eat and stay hydrated, because your face mask is frozen to your face to drink some water or eats something because when you go to put it back on it’s not going to move, so yeah, there’s lots of challenges when you’re dealing with 40 or 50 below,” he said. “It’s a whole different deal.”
Aaron Burmeister says the cold is the reason nearly every musher is exhausted when they pull their dog team into a checkpoint.
“It’s been really flippin’ cold, so people haven’t been talking a whole lot,” Burmeister said. “They’re freezing their butts off. Their legs are sore, arms are sore from moving on the trail from trying to stay warm, so there’s been a lot of work, soft trails, but there hasn’t been much drama.”
Burmeister says he’s struggled most with trying to keep his dog team healthy.
“Pretty much everything that could go wrong on a race you wish never happens has already gone wrong in the last 250 miles, so I’m hoping things pick up from here,” he said. “They’re eating again, they’re’ drinking, I had good stools coming in here, I still have a couple females in heat, but I’m just hoping things clear up and start improving.”
Mushers have reported a mostly smooth trail, but along the Yukon River, it has started to soften up and wind is causing the snow to drift. Jesse Royer doesn’t expect a good trail report to last too long.
“I was hearing some other mushers taking back in Tanana like ‘well if the wind doesn’t get us on the river, it probably will on the coast, because it just can’t not get us somewhere,’” Royer said. “I don’t know the wind on the river can be pretty bad, not that coast is any much better, so I guess it’s still a long ways to Nome, so a lot can happen.”
Teams will continue down the Yukon River toward Galena, where they’ll turn north and make their way for Huslia on an overland trail.
The forecast calls for continued cold, subzero temperatures and wind out of the Northwest throughout the middle Yukon River valley.