‘This is a nightmare now’: Iditarod musher recounts helicopter rescue from flooded trail

Iditarod musher Matthew Failor at the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage Saturday, March 7, 2020. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Musher Matthew Failor is returning to daily life at his sled dog kennel in Willow after his attempt at this year’s 1,000-mile Iditarod got turned upside down. A helicopter rescued Failor from a flooded section of trail, just 25 miles from the finish line.

He recently recounted what happened from his home, with his sled dog named Cool Cat.

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Aerial overview of White Mountain. (Photo by Ben Matheson/KNOM)

It was late and windy in the small village of White Mountain on March 19 when Matthew Failor, Sean Underwood and Tom Knolmayer decided to set out — together — for Nome.

A snowmachiner told them the trail ahead wasn’t so bad, Failor said. And they had banked more than 20 hours of rest in White Mountain as they tried to wait out a storm. The Iditarod had already crowned its race champion nearly 48 hours earlier

“So when we left it was, ‘Hey, we’re gonna just power through the wind and go get Sean, this rookie, his belt buckle,’” Failor said.

This was Underwood’s first Iditarod. He was a last-minute substitute for four-time race champion Jeff King. It was Knolmayer’s fourth Iditarod and Failor’s ninth. 

Related: Meet Sean Underwood, the musher who found out last week he’d be racing the 2020 Iditarod

They had just 77 miles to go to the finish line. 

But the wind was strong. Failor said it reminded him of sticking his head out the window as a little boy, while his parents drove down the highway.

“If you stood up, your parka, it would catch almost like a sail and pull you back and slow you down that much more,” he said. “You had to kind of hunker down behind your handlebar.”

The trail took them onto a beach, where things got much worse.

“Couple hours I think I was mushing on the coast and then I could see two headlamps facing me way off in the distance,” Failor said.

“I thought that it was the the checkpoint of Safety,” he said, “because normally they have a veterinarian and a checker waiting for you at Safety.”

Musher Matthew Failor and his sled dog team crossing the Bering Sea toward a prior checkpoint, Koyuk, during the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Courtesy Matthew Failor)

But this was not the Safety Roadhouse, the final checkpoint 22 miles from the finish line. Underwood and Knolmayer were stopped at a pool of water.

What the mushers did not know when they left White Mountain was the relentless wind was pushing ocean water onto the trail.

“It’s not really like normal overflow, where when you’re on a lake or when you’re on a river, it might be defined and just kind of wet everywhere,” Failor said. “It was like pockets, just pockets of water. But the pockets of water were about the size of basketball courts or volleyball courts and some even bigger.”

The trail makers cut through the overflow, Failor said. To the right, was deep, powdery snow. And to the other side, the sea. 

“There’s a little bit of that, like uncertainty and scariness of, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go too far to the left because there’s ocean water out there,’” Failor said.

So, Failor said, he tied trash bags over his legs and his team navigated through the overflow. The edges of it were like quicksand — easily suctioning off boots.

“As soon as you step on it, you’d sink up to your thighs in slush,” he said.

Failor said they decided to stay close to the markers and help each other’s teams through the water, each time hoping the overflow would end. 

“I distinctly remember saying, ‘Alright, great, we’re through that one. Let’s get out of here. Let’s get on a dry trail and go to Nome,’” Failor said. “And I even said out loud to Sean, I said, ‘We’re getting you this belt buckle, no problem like, let’s do this.’ And then, within 10 feet, there was another one.”

This stretch of water was the longest, and also the deepest.

Failor and Underwood waded in and tried to move Failor’s team through it, as Knolmayer stayed with the other dogs, Failor said. But then, Failor’s sled got stuck in the slush. It wouldn’t budge. 

“Sean and I basically said, like, ‘Our race is over,’  you know, and in more choice words, we’re like, ‘We’re done with this, this is a nightmare now,’” Failor said.

They unhooked Failor’s dogs. And, Failor said, the three mushers — together — decided to hit a button on their trackers calling for help and officially quitting the Iditarod.

Then, they waited. 

Failor said he gathered supplies from his trapped sled and took off his wet clothes.

“I took my parka and put that on and zipped up and just literally snuggled the dogs until I was sweating,” he said. 

A few hours later, a snowmachiner and Underwood’s girlfriend arrived. Underwood had spoken with her using an inReach device. 

Then came the Army National Guard in a Black Hawk helicopter. It was late morning on March 20.

“I’m in my boxers and now we’ve got like these amazing “Top Gun” Army guys that are going to come rescue me in my underwear,” Failor said.

Failor said he felt guilty and embarrassed to have called for help. But the sled was stuck and the mushers were wet and there was no clear end to the overflow.

The mushers were flown to Nome, and their dogs were taken away by snowmachine. Race officials reported they were all healthy, and the Iditarod rerouted the trail for the next group of mushers.

Related: 3 Iditarod mushers rescued by helicopter outside of Nome

Now, a few weeks later, Failor said he and his dogs are back to their routines in Willow.

“We’re in complete relaxation mode,” he said.

Liz Raines, Matthew Failor’s fiancée, with five of the dogs from the 2020 Iditard team. (Matthew Failor)

Failor also ended his race in an Alaska that looks much different from when he started and, he said, that has given him perspective.

“There are people dying from the coronavirus and there is real world stuff going on and my dogs are healthy. I’m healthy,” he said. “I didn’t finish the race. It’s not the end of the world, you know?”

He wasn’t the only one. Failor, Knolmayer and Underwood were three of the 23 mushers who ended their Iditarod early this year, either by calling it quits on the trail or being withdrawn. That’s about 40 percent of the race field.

But, Failor said, he’ll be back at the starting line next year.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.