44th Iditarod: what, who, and why to watch

The 44th annual Iditarod trail sled dog race gets underway on Sunday, although the festive ceremonial start kicks off Saturday in downtown Anchorage.

This is one of the largest fields in the race’s history, with 85 mushers signed up to start.

To break down the race, Lori Townsend spoke with KNOM News Director Emily Schwing and Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes. Both will be reporting from the trail the next two weeks, and have a few recommendations on what to keep on eye on. And what snacks they’re packing.

KNOM's Emily Schwing and APM's Zachariah Hughes break down what's worth keepign an eye on in the weeks ahead along the trail. Photo/Lori Townsend, APRN
KNOM’s Emily Schwing and APM’s Zachariah Hughes break down what’s worth keepign an eye on in the weeks ahead along the trail. Photo/Lori Townsend, APRN

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Lori Townsend: Emily, you’ve been covering thousand-mile sled-dog races for six years: who are you watching this year?

Emily Schwing: When it comes to potential winners, here’s my short list:

  • Dallas Seavey. He’s won three times in four years. Right now, his team is made up of a bunch of three-year-olds that were trained up by Christian Turner. He’s also running veteran dogs, and his leaders are trail veterans, as well.
  • Brent Sass. He’s been off the Iditarod trail the last two years. In 2014 he sustained a concussion during the Yukon Quest that kept him off. Then last year he misinterpreted the race rules over an iPod Touch that, it turns out, was not allowed on the trail, and he was disqualified in Tanana. He’s hungry for this. And on the Quest this year both he and his dogs got sick–which may be an advantage if he didn’t push his dogs too hard during that run. So that’s definitely another team to watch.
  • There’s a handful of other mushers that many people might not expect up front, but have a good, solid shot. Joar Ulsum, Sirgid Ekran, Nicholas Petit. They know this trail, they’re experienced on the route, and are extremely competitive.

 

LT: Zach, what do we know about trail conditions along the route?

Zachariah Hughes: At a press briefing earlier this week, Race Marshall Mark Nordman laid out what the trail committee is seeing:

  • Out of the Re-start in Willow good snow conditions mean a hard, fast trail
  • Toward Yentna and Skwentna a hard, fast trail yields to deeper snow that could slow things down.
  • From Skwentna to Rainy Pass snow depths are close to four feet.
  • Sounds dicey going down the Dalzell Gorge and across the Burn towards Rohn–but officials say they’ve put in a lot of work to make it safer and more navigable than the 2014 run that left mushers bruised, broken, and bitter. Craig Medred’s blog has a more detailed recounting of gorge and burn conditions, and the tl;dr version is: Rough, rugged, but fair for capable mushers.
  • First 20 miles of the Burn sounds quite bare and brutal, but the snow picks up closer to Nikolai.
  • Good trail conditions from Nikolai on toward McGrath.
  • The long, lean section of the trail heading towards Ophir and Cripple sounds like it’s got about two feet of snow.
  • No problems mentioned along the long, flat Yukon leg.
  • The over-land stretch from Kaltag to Unalakleet: mixed reviews. Nordman said it was rough and bare, but pilots that have flown over the last two weeks say snow cover looks good from above.
  • Snow is spare along the coast, but this year so is sea-ice. There’s expected to be a reroute inland going north up the Eastern Norton Sound moving toward Shaktoolik and Koyuk. No word on ice conditions in the upper-right pocket of the sound heading over to the Seward Peninsula.
  • Routing across Golovin Bay is not firm yet, either. Overall, conditions were described by Nordman as “usual” for the coast leading in to Nome.

LT: What are you both excited for?

ES: I’m looking forward to the unexpected. Last year we saw young mushers pull off incredible finishes. Wade Mars had the fastest time from Safety to Nome and took 10th place. Travis Beals took 11th. No one expected to see those guys in Nome so early. There are a handful of other darkhorses I’m excited to watch.

ZH: This is only the third Iditarod I’ve reported on, and both prior years the conditions were exceptionally bad. In 2014 the story was about how calamatous the route down the Gorge was, leaving a lot of scratches and injured mushers. Last year, the Fairbanks routing across the Yukon made the race similar to the Quest, with long runs and extreme, prolongued cold spells. I’m excited to see Iditarod racers run the Iditarod this time around.

Also, I’m just really excited to be on the trail in person. I cut my teeth on dog mushing as a reporter in Nome and got to see the end of the race. But being able to see such different sections of the state–the mountains, the flats, the Yukon, the coast–all strong together like pearls on a necklace, unifying parts of the state that really aren’t often in dialogue…I’m excited to get to see that connection.

 

LT: Last question: what special trail food are you talking along?

ES: I just got a care package from my mom in Salt Lake City. I’m most excited about the coconut strips and candied ginger, because there’s nothing like candied ginger at 2 a.m. as fuel to keep you going.

ZH: Protein. I have some smoked salmon strips, but not as much moose jerky as I’d hoped for. In fact, none.