Uneven, Icy, Snow-Free Trail Challenges Iditarod Teams on Their Way to Koyuk

Mushers were met with an unforgiving trail as they pushed up the coast from Unalakleet to Koyuk, Sunday.  They battled wind, miles of glare ice and more snow free trail.

They’re also battling extreme fatigue and grappling with how best to cut rest and maintain speed as they close in on Nome.

The blinding sun was no match for a biting wind as Aliy Zirkle‘s team did it’s best to navigate a road into Koyuk that is completely covered in smooth, thick ice.

Zirkle says she and her dog team slid and stumbled all the way from Unalakleet.

“There were a lot of holes they could have stepped in and they stepped in so I don’t know if we were a little off our game or something,” Zirkle said.

She says her sled tipped over multiple times.

“And your wheel dogs get it worse because your sled goes all the way over and hits a snow berm and flips,” she said.

There’s very little loose snow on the trail north along the coast, so dogs are having a hard time with hydration. Zirkle says their noses are rubbed raw.

Under the blaring sun, Aliy Zirkle tries to steer her team into Koyuk on an extremely icy road.Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC - Fairbanks.
Under the blaring sun, Aliy Zirkle tries to steer her team into Koyuk on an extremely icy road.Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“They’re having a hard time dipping snow. That’s what they do to stay hydrated,” she said. “The snow is so hard a crusty that they’re dipping and they’re cutting their noses so you have to stop periodically to let them eat snow in spots where the snow is good.”

Zirkle pulled at her chin as she looked over her team.  Her main leader, Quito is a little sore.

“Oh we’re good, our speed is just going to go down,” she said. “I just have to rub her down.  I don’t think she’s out I just think she’s sore.”

As she repacked her sled and cook a hot meal for her team, Zirkle taunted Jeff King who was parked about 10 feet away.

Zirkle: “Jeff you speedy demon!”

King: “What demon…. I thought you said did you see the demon?”

King came in to the checkpoint right on Zirkle’s heels.  He very well may have seen a demon as he tried to steer his team across the uneven, icy, snow free trail.

“There were moments it was reminiscent of the gorge and riding my brake and my leg was tired from pushing my brake so hard,” King said. “It’s not my idea of fun mushing at all.  It’s hard, hard, hard, hard surface and it’s not that smooth.  It’s uneven and hard.”

A lead dog named Barnum was having a tough time finding his footing, so King switched him out for a dog named Skeeter.  She’s a go-to leader King says he’s been saving for days.

“You have to let the dogs make some of the decisions and they made a decisions that encouraged me to switch Barnum and Skeeter and she was just dead on perfect find scratch marks where we needed to go and maneuvering,” King said.

King believes his team has the kind of speed all mushers are looking for right now, but he will have to fend off fast teams coming from behind.  Late in the afternoon, Dallas Seavey’s dogs trotted across the ice into Koyuk. He made a big move back in Unalakleet.  His is the only team that didn’t rest in that checkpoint.

Jeff King's wheel dogs take a break in Koyuk.Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC - Fairbanks.
Jeff King’s wheel dogs take a break in Koyuk.Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“You don’t always exactly have it planned,” Seavey said. “You just have to be a little bit of an opportunist, keep your eyes open and set those things up. You have to put yourself into position, so I was working on that one from Takotna.”

But, as a stiff, cold wind blew through the dog yard, Seavey told the race judge he made a big mistake in Shaktoolik.

“I made a huge mistake when I left there,” he said. “I planned to stay four, and daylight savings time … I laid down, got up bootied and left on three… oh well, they did great.  These dogs handle even my mistakes.  That’s pretty impressive.”

An extra hour of rest may not have been necessary. Sonny Lindner’s team came in just after Seavey with wagging tails and perky ears.  The musher himself looked a little bleary-eyed.

“I always like when Dallas goes by though,” Lindner said. “Running, ski poling, full blast. I needed to see something moving.”

Teams were warned in Koyuk about some logistical changes in Elim. An elder in that village passed away last week, so the checkpoint has been moved and there are few volunteers to help.

Once they reach White Mountain, teams will rest for a mandatory eight hours before they push on for Safety and the burled arch in Nome.