Photos and Story by Tim Bodony, APRN – Kaltag
The race continues to roll along at a record pace. John Baker was the first to get here at 1:19 pm Saturday. The leader usually gets here late Saturday or early Sunday.
“It’s not that much of a lead,” Baker said after bedding down his dogs. His closest competitor, the charging Ramey Smyth, did not show up for another hour and 40 minutes. Baker did not know at that time that Ramey had passed Neff and Schnuelle after Eagle Island, and that Ramey had made the 70 mile run up to Kaltag almost an hour faster than him. Still, Baker was impressed with the strength of his team. They’re eating well and holding a steady pace. That should be key if he wants to stay ahead of a faster team like Ramey Smyth’s team. He will need to keep moving.
Sebastian Schnuelle and Hugh Neff arrived together, and travelled all day together after leaving Eagle Island. Both seem to think that this race is somebody else’s to win. They like where Ramey Smyth is poised. Hans Gatt decided to camp before Kaltag on the river, not a common maneuver, but one that puts him through Kaltag early Satuday night and on the trail to Unalakleet, trying to close the gap on Baker. The wiry athleticism of Gatt and Smyth gives them an advantage this year, in Schnuelle’s opinion, who readily admits to being rather static on the runners while the dogs do the work.
Smyth was in good spirits around the checkpoint. He’s a throwback kind of guy. He is one of the few remaining Iditarod mushers that uses a wood sled. It is battered and graying, and looks like a museum piece. “I bought it used, so I don’t know exactly how old it is,” he explained. “But I’ve been using it for 10 or 12 years.” Smyth also uses a longer gangline than almost every other distance musher. The dogs are spaced further apart. It’s more common to see such a long gangline on a sprint dog team, and not a team that has to wind through the woods sometimes.
There is clearly a rivalry between Sebastian and Jessie Royer. It’s a friendly rivalry, since Jessie and Sebastian have formed a dog sharing partnership. Sebastian’s team is a hodge podge of Aaron Burmeister’s main team, some dogs from Jessie, and Sebastian’s favorite dogs that he could not part with when he decided to downsize his kennel operation last year. Next to Kaltag’s community hall, they were bantering back and forth as Sebastian prepared to leave and Jessie was finishing her chores after arriving. “Even your brother told me he wants me to beat you,” Jessie told Sebastian.
More mushers are coming off of the trail with stories of encounters with a sleeping Martin Buser. Buser admitted to falling asleep on the runners, and occasionally falling off of the sled, when he arrived at Anvik. Evidently it is still a problem for him. Mackey and Schnuelle both had stories of trying to call for the trail to pass Buser, but getting no response. When he did wake up, a tip-over or tumble came next.
Dee Dee Jonrowe had a very strong run up the Yukon, gaining several spots in the rankings and pulling into Kaltag in 7th place. She looked very weary, but was excited about her team. They are very young overall, and that youthful energy is contributing to her speed. It’s handy in other ways too. “You can blow through a checkpoint, and they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. Some of her dogs are even making their racing debut. What dogs lack in knowledge they usually make up for with enthusiasm.
As the day nears its end, Baker is climbing the portage trail with a 20 mile cushion between his team and a chase pack led by Ramey Smyth, followed by Hans Gatt, Sebastian Schnuelle and Hugh Neff. Other mushers seem to be putting their money on Smyth or Gatt to win this thing.
Photos: (Top) Ramey Smyth’s leader Zeus blending into the snowy surroundings. (Top Right) The menu at the Kaltag Teen Center, located across the street from the checkpoint. (Left) Drop bags at the Kaltag checkpoint. (Bottom Right) John Baker tends to his dogs after arriving in first place into Kaltag.