After coronavirus concerns close Shaktoolik checkpoint, residents band together to create spot for mushers to rest outside of town

Aaron Peck (right) helps Jessie Holmes outside of Shaktoolik on Monday. Peck dropped out of the race at Shaktoolik, roughly 750 miles into the 1,000-mile sled dog race. (Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

Shaktoolik City leaders decided on Friday to close their official Iditarod checkpoint because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Instead, they asked mushers to bypass the village and stop for their straw and drop bags about two miles away from town, at the old village site. But, the residents of the small coastal village couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do more.

Shaktoolik, at race mile 754, is usually a key resting spot for mushers and their sled dogs before they push to the next checkpoint at Koyuk, 50 miles away. The stretch of trail is known for its brutal conditions and fierce wind along the sea ice of the Norton Sound.

When Shaktoolik resident Hannah Lynn Sookiyak heard that mushers wouldn’t get more than food and their supply bags outside of town this year, she said she started to plan.

“My husband and I were sitting on the couch thinking about what we could do,” Lynn said. “And I said, ‘Maybe if I post on Facebook we’ll find some help and maybe we’ll just start from there.’”

Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.

And the community came out in full force. Most of the buildings outside of town had been scrapped or totally weathered away, but they found one little house that had four walls, a roof and some potential.

“At first they said when they got here it looked so hopeless,” Lynn said. “But people just stepped in and started coming, even if they did something little, it helped a lot and it just started coming together.”

The old village site outside of Shaktoolik on Monday. (Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

One resident plowed a large lot so dog teams could pull out and rest on straw. Then someone brought a wood stove, another brought a generator and others brought tables and cots to make a resting place.

Lynda Bekoalok is an Iditarod Trail Committee member and a teacher in Shaktoolik. This weekend, she also became an unofficial coordinator of the temporary checkpoint.

“There was four feet of snow inside the house so we all had to shovel that out,” she said. “And it was frozen so they’d shovel for a while and then shovel more as it melted. They cleaned out the house and they’ve had the wood stove going trying to dry it out. And they put visqueen over the windows to keep the wind out.”

Related: ‘Well that’s a little different’: Iditarod mushers learn about moved checkpoints, closed schools as coronavirus concerns grow

They also installed a clothes line for drying gloves and coats over a roaring wood stove. A pile of logs sat next to a table crowded with food and coffee.

They had almost everything a normal checkpoint would have, except for Iditarod staff, including a veterinarian. Without race officials, mushers’ run times are not being updated on the leaderboard when they reach the cabin.

Bekoalok said she’s remained in close contact with Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman as the community created a resting top for teams. Nordman told her that mushers cannot send dogs home in Shaktoolik, they must bring them to Koyuk. In a true emergency, he told her, they would try and get a veterinarian in from Unalakleet.

Jessie Holmes outside of Shaktoolik on Monday. (Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

Shaktoolik leaders said they know asking the Iditarod to bypass town is hard for residents. Axel Johnson is the tribal council president and said he is proud of the effort the community has made to take care of mushers while keeping Shaktoolik safe and healthy. While the decision to close the checkpoint was made by the city government, not the tribe, Johnson said the council stands behind it.

“The tribe has the sovereign right to protect its own people from any kind of disease coming in,” he said.

Bekoalok said they are encouraging social distancing in Shaktoolik by asking community members to stay away from the makeshift checkpoint. Shaktoolik isn’t closed to visitors, but by shuttering the checkpoint, they are reducing the amount of traffic, she said. (KNOM received permission from the tribe before coming to the community.)

Normally, a troop of people follow Iditarod mushers to Shaktoolik, including race officials, a veterinarian, a race judge and “volunteers from all over the world,” Bekoalok said. But not this year.

That’s been hard for some Shaktoolik residents who have formed friendships with the volunteers who come up each year, Bekoalok said. But, she said, she understands the decision to shutter the official checkpoint is in the best interest of elders.

It isn’t the only way COVID-19 has impacted the morale in Shaktoolik. Both the boy’s and girl’s basketball teams were scheduled to play in a state basketball tournament this week in Anchorage. It’s the first time they’ve both won regionals.

“And so most of the village, we all had tickets to fly to Anchorage this week. And when that got canceled everyone was just like, ‘Now what are we gonna do?’” Bekoalok said.

Related: Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner is first to White Mountain, 77 miles from finish line

Creating a warm space for mushers has been a welcome distraction, she said.

“We’ve had a lot of those kids on those teams helping: chopping wood, making a water hole on the river,” she said.

With the exception of Thomas Waerner — the first musher into Shaktoolik Sunday night — residents are mostly keeping away from the resting spot they created outside of town and practicing their social distancing.

By late Tuesday afternoon, two mushers were taking a break outside of Shaktoolik, and about a dozen were on their way. Meanwhile, Waerner had left White Mountain in first place for the final 77-mile dash to Nome.