Chuck Schaeffer, one of four Native Americans who entered the 2015 Iditarod, sipped a cup of what he called “cowboy coffee” at his kitchen table near Willow, Alaska and patiently answered dozens of questions. It was the day before the Iditarod Sleddog race, and Schaeffer was talking to press, as well as a few visitors.
Outside the sun was shining and it was 35 degrees. Snow had been scarce lately, and it had hampered training plans for many of the 78 mushers entered in the race. It had also forced changes in the route. “The earth’s axis is shifting,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “That’s why there’s a change in weather patterns.”
Schaeffer, an Inupiaq Native Alaskan, was about to tackle the 1,000 mile sled marathon to Nome for the first time in 24 years. In his two previous tries he failed to finish. In 1985, he was knocked out on a technicality, and in 1991 he scratched because of illness.
He sold Herbie, a prized dog he bred and raised to Jeff King, who went on to win three Iditarods with him. Schaeffer said Herbie sired other dogs that helped Lance Mackey win multiple Iditarod crowns.
In the intervening years, Schaeffer did a lot of commercial fishing and carpentry work, but never lost the desire to compete again in the “Great Race.” Now he’s 60. If he was ever going to complete the Iditarod he had to get moving. “This time I’m ready to finish this thing,” he said in a calm but resolute manner.
Schaeffer’s fellow Native Alaskans in the 2015 race were John Baker, also of Inupiaq heritage, Richie Diehl, a Native Athabascan, and Pete Kaiser, of Yupik ancestry. Baker was the first Inupiaq musher to win the Iditarod.
“I’ve lost most of it,” Schaeffer said of his Native Inupiaq language. “I was raised in the B.I.A. system and English was stressed.” But he has continued to embrace many of the customs he learned as a child.
“My mom put seal oil in our ears to cure ear problems,” he said. “Old Eskimos used it for healing purposes. And it’s also good for dogs. I put a teaspoon in each bucket of their food and mix it in. The Inupiat people have used it for generations. It helps keep a dog’s fur soft and shiny.”
Chuck and his wife Tracey, an occupational therapist, have spent 10 years building a team of dogs capable of winning competitive races. They came south from Kotzebue, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, to live and train their dog team near the road system. It was a matter of economics. In Kotzebue, an item as simple as a bag of dog food can be three times as expensive.
And Alaskans know how expensive the Iditarod experience can be. The entry fee alone is $3,000.
A visitor asked if he could see his sled and learn more about his dogs. They stepped outside and Schaeffer lit a cigarette.
His dogs got excited and howled with glee at the sight of their skipper. They live in spartan houses made of discarded 55 gallon plastic barrels. Schaeffer had cut the barrels in half and carved out doorways. The insides are covered with straw.
“Do they always bark like that when you come outside?” the visitor asked.
“Sure, because they know something good is going to happen. They’re either going for a run, or they’re about to be fed,” he replied.
He showed off his lead dog, Split, who at age 8, is nearing the end of his racing days.
In his shop was the sled he built specifically for the Iditarod. It was light weight and had no frills. “I’m trying something different,” he said, “carbine fiber because it’s lighter than aluminum and half the weight of plastic.”
“Are you having any trouble sleeping at night?” his visitor asked.
“No, I don’t let anything bother me except the dogs,” he replied.
The next day, thousands of spectators lined 4th Avenue in Anchorage for the ceremonial start.
Fan favorites like Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle drew flocks of media and autograph seekers. Some of the mushers arrived in sleek rigs emblazoned with sponsor logos that would have been right at home at a NASCAR race.
Schaeffer, his wife and daughter Bailey pulled up in a nondescript pickup, pulling a trailer that carried his dogs. Their noses poked through round holes in wooden boxes which Schaeffer had made to haul them in.
Street crews had worked feverishly the previous night hauling in snow so the mushers could travel 11 miles from the ceremonial start to Campbell Airstrip.
At 10 a.m. they went off with Schaeffer wearing bib No. 67, the starting position he had drawn at the musher’s banquet earlier in the week. When they arrived at the airstrip he said, “Now we’ll go to Fairbanks and see what Mother Nature throws at us.”
At the Fairbanks restart, Schaeffer left the gate with 14 dogs, two shy of the maximum allowed. He was one of the few in the race who started with less than 16.
In the early stages, he moved up quickly, settling into a position in the mid-forties. But by the halfway point, trouble set in. Several of his dogs were stricken with diarrhea, making them susceptible to dehydration. Schaeffer’s lead dog Split had to be sent home. Two other dogs were dropped, leaving him with 11 and hundreds of miles to go.
Back at the Schaeffer home, Tracey shared news from the trail.
“The dogs are struggling,” she said. “It’s miserably cold.”
And Schaeffer was fighting muscle cramps, an old nemesis.
On the trail, Schaeffer camped between checkpoints at Galena and Huslia. The temperature dipped to 50 below. When he continued, his speed slowed to less than four miles an hour. Another dog was dropped.
By this time close to a dozen mushers had scratched.
A severe storm gripped the trail as high winds and near zero visibility forced mushers to take refuge at the Shaktoolik and Unalakleet checkpoints. Schaeffer had dropped two more dogs and was down to 8, with over 200 miles remaining. He was in dire straits. Rules require that a musher finish the race with a team of at least 6 dogs.
Schaeffer advanced cautiously, stopping often to rest the dogs. Others passed him, but he resisted the temptation to speed up. Always in his head was that vow he made before the race began: “This time I’m ready to finish this thing.”
Dallas Seavey finished Wednesday, March 18, sealing his third Iditarod victory in four years. One by one, the finishers passed under the Burled Arch that marked the trail’s end. Thursday came and went, and Friday too. More mushers arrived in Nome.
Tracey and Bailey flew to Nome and kept a vigil. Tracey remained optimistic. “He’s going to make it,” she said with confidence when Schaeffer reached the White Mountain checkpoint. There were 77 miles remaining. He dropped another dog and was down to seven, one over the minimum. “That was scary,” he said.
The finish, through the last checkpoint at Safety, 22 miles from Nome, is often treacherous. Last year, Jeff King was leading when a blizzard knocked him out of the race near the final checkpoint. But this year, Mother Nature had a change of heart. The wind had died down and the sun shined brightly as the crowd on Front Street in Nome prepared to greet the next finisher on Saturday, March 21.
A group of Native Alaskan dancers and drummers broke into a welcoming chant. A sled pulled by seven Alaskan Huskies chugged toward the finish line. The driver was wearing a flat cap.
Schaeffer arrived, exhausted and relieved to be at the trail’s end. Tracey and Bailey gave him a hug. He was too tired to do much celebrating.
Officially, he finished in 51st place. His journey took 12 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes. After three tries at the Iditarod, the third time was the charm. He could now go home and enjoy a cup of cowboy coffee.
Correction: John Baker was not the first Alaska Native to win the Iditarod. He was the fouth Alaska Native to win the Iditarod, and the first Inupiaq musher to win the title.