TAKOTNA — Tim Pappas cooked up a big meal for his dog team in an insulated cooler Wednesday at the checkpoint here under clear skies. It was a quiet morning as lines of sled dogs curled up on straw in temperatures that dipped below freezing.
“It’s just pork trimmings, so there is a lot of fat, a good amount of meat, water, and now I’m mixing kibble in,” Pappas said as he combined the ingredients.
Pappas is running the A-team from four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser’s kennel. He was one of more than a dozen mushers who parked their sled dog teams in Takotna early Wednesday to take their mandatory, 24-hour breaks. It’s the longest rest of the race, and a day-long stretch for mushers and their dogs to bank rest and calories. Takotna, a tiny mining town, is about 330 miles into the 1,000-mile trail.
“They devoured everything,” Pappas said, praising his dogs’ appetites. “It was awesome.”
Meanwhile, Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner was sprawled on his dogs’ straw bed, gently serving up thick pieces of soggy bacon to his dog named Bibbi.
“I have one dog who needs a little extra care to eat, so I’m hand-feeding him to get him started,” he said. “If you don’t get the calories in, he will not (get) to Nome. And I would like him to get to Nome.”
Over the past few nights, temperatures on the trail have plunged to 30 degrees below zero — a bitter cold that can zap calories out of the dogs.
Knik musher Anna Berington was trying a new technique to get fat into her team during their 24-hour layover in Takotna. She sent four pounds of butter to the checkpoint.
“They’ve never had it before, so they’re like, ‘What the heck is this?’” Berington said. “I should have practiced it in training more. But it’s out here, it’s a good fat source. If they eat it, that’s great. If not, then I spent some money on sending butter out here that I didn’t have to.”
Mushers tried to log naps between feeding their dogs. Many said they hadn’t gotten much sleep since the race started Sunday. But Berington’s twin sister and kennel partner, Kristy, said it’s tough: The long layover is really all about dog care.
“You come last in the whole scheme of things, of course. Then you get to eat and sleep,” she said. “I got plenty of sleep on the run from Nikolai to McGrath. I don’t know — I can sleep on the runners, stay standing and not let go of the sled. But I’ve trained myself over the last 10 years to do a pretty good job.”
Mushers said the 24-hour break is also a chance to adjust to the curveballs of the first few days.
Last year’s winner, Pete Kaiser, said he had a few dogs that went into heat, making for a distracted team that wasn’t eating as well. After a big feeding, he said, he looked forward to getting on to the next stage.
“Mainly getting these dogs to eat and becoming more of a team than a discombobulated unit,” said the Bethel musher. “If we can get them focused on eating and running down the trail more than their extracurricular activities they want to partake in — so far, we’re still trying to sort that out.”
The first teams on their 24-hour stops in Takotna will be able to leave the checkpoint early Thursday. Other mushers have pressed on and decided to take their long stops at Ophir and Cripple, quieter checkpoints farther down the trail.