Galena — Toward the middle of the Iditarod race pack, where the competition is a little less fierce, there’s a good deal of collaboration among racers. Mushers talk about trail conditions and compare strategies.
This weekend, as race officials changed checkpoints over coronavirus concerns, there was a lot of advice being swapped, including between Jessica Klejka and Linwood Fiedler, a musher in the middle of her second race to Nome and another who had just ended his 26th Iditarod early.
As she fed her team in Galena on Saturday, Jessica Klejka was wet. It was snowing, but just warm enough that the moisture melted on contact, soaking her bulky white outerwear and dampening her dogs. She said she was testing a new feeding routine to get her dogs to eat enough food.
“It seems like when it’s wet out they start to crave kibble, so I’m just gonna try this first,” she said. “You get to do so (much) experimenting trying to get all their calories in them.”
Klejka said she was disappointed. She took her eight-hour rest up river in Ruby, and by the time she set back out, the fresh, wet snow made for a slower-than-expected run. After finishing her dog chores, she sat down in the nearby community hall and wolfed down bowls of hot moose soup.
“I’m sitting here kind of debating how long to wait before I take off again because it’s gonna be a slow trek to Nulato,” she said.
Sitting across from Klejka was Linwood Fiedler, whom she affectionately calls “boss.”
“I worked for him for six years in the summers,” she said.
Fiedler runs glacier dog tours outside of Juneau, and season after season Klejka was one of his employees. Now, he’s doling out advice about how she should handle what is turning into an increasingly difficult Iditarod.
“I would get the biggest garbage bag you can find and make a poncho out of that,” he said.
Fiedler, 66, has started 25 Iditarods before, finishing as high as second in 2001. He talks race tactics with the 30-year-old Klejka, particularly for the long run up the Norton Sound coast from Unalakleet to Koyuk — a run made all the longer by news that there won’t be a checkpoint in Shaktoolik.
“What can be an extremely, extremely hostile environment,” Fiedler said. “You just cannot underestimate how difficult that coast can be, the potential of it to be real bad. So I was giving some sage wisdom to Jess about potential places she might think about stopping, where she’d be a little protected from elements for a while and give the dogs a rest before taking out on the sea ice. Because once you do, you’re pretty well committed. There’s no turning back, and going forward can be pretty slow.”
Fiedler said it’s normal for mushers to share knowledge about the race. And though she finished last year’s Iditarod, Klejka is still figuring out how to adapt her plans and her training to unpredictable conditions on the way to Nome.
“I’m taking it one checkpoint at a time, I can’t get too much into goals right now,” she said.
For Fiedler, the race is over. His team got sick on the second day. Their appetites didn’t recover, and each run diminished their reserves, he said.
“At this point they’ve lost too much body weight, I’m uncomfortable running a team in that condition, and this has turned into not an easy trail. So it’s just time for us to go home, kinda lick our wounds and re-group for another year,” he said.
After Fiedler got to Galena, at race mile 545, he had to scratch. Even as he’s counseling Klejka, Fiedler said he’s navigating his own distinct set of emotional circumstances after ending his race early.
“It was a decision I had to make. I mean to me it was very clear that to go forward was not in the best interest of the dogs,” he said. “But it’s hard. You work all winter for an event and you have to pull the plug earlier than you wanted to, so it’s just dealing with that.”
Fiedler said he knows going home is the right thing to do, and “on the scale of things, this is a pretty small bump.”
“But at the moment it doesn’t feel very good,” he said.
At the end of the day, Fiedler said, most Iditarod mushers are bound by a common purpose: a shared love of dogs, the land and the race. So, he said, of course he’ll tell Klejka about his special spot where she can duck out of the wind on the way to Koyuk.
By early Sunday afternoon, Klejka and her 13-dog team had made it to the next checkpoint outside of Nulato, about 580 miles into the race, and about 200 miles away from Koyuk.
Meanwhile, Thomas Waerner, of Norway, was the first musher to reach Unalakleet, about 260 miles from Nome. He and his 12 dogs pulled in shortly after 10 a.m.