The sky was clear and the sun relatively warm in Shaktoolik when Pete Kaiser and his team pulled into this usually windy Norton Bay town of 200 people at 11:22 a.m. March 13. Shaktoolik is mile 758 in the 978-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Kaiser and team were in ninth place, chasing Iditarod father and son champions Mitch and Dallas Seavey and ahead of such luminaries as four-time champs Jeff King and Martin Buser; and John Baker, the first Inupiaq to win the Iditarod.
Earlier in the race, which began March 3, Kaiser was in third and ahead of the Seaveys, but now they were several hours ahead of him. And yet, as Kaiser rested his dogs, he was content.
“We’re trying to hold our position the best we can,” the Yup’ik musher and three-time Kuskokwim 300 champion told Iditarod Insider. Focusing on his dogs, he said, “We’re going to give them a good break in the sun and make sure we give them the rest they need.”
Ultimately, Kaiser finished ninth, crossing the finish line in Nome at 11:05 a.m. March 15 with 10 dogs in harness (mushers start with 16, but will leave dogs with handlers at checkpoints for the health of the dogs). This was Kaiser’s fourth top 10 finish in eight races.
The Alaska Native contingent in the 2017 Iditarod performed well, all crossing mile 758 within the top 25.
Baker, the 2011 champion and the last winner before the Age of Seavey began, entered Nome at the 758-mile mark at 5:50 p.m., March 15, with eight dogs in harness. He finished 18th; he has 13 top-10 finishes in 22 races.
Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, finished 24th, crossing the finish line at 8:33 p.m., March 15, with 11 dogs in harness. He finished 12th in 2016, 23rd in 2015, 14th in 2014, and 36th in 2013. He was awarded the Most Improved Musher in 2014.
The first family of the Iditarod was well represented this year. Brothers Ray, Ryan and Robert Redington are the grandsons of Joe Redington Sr., Iditarod co-founder (and a past fifth-place finisher). Ray, Ryan and Robert’s dad and uncle are also Iditarod veterans. Ray finished seventh, his fifth top 10 finish in 16 races, crossing the finish line at 9:13 a.m., March 15, with nine dogs in harness.
Ryan and Robert, whose mother is Inupiaq, finished career-best 14th and 22nd, respectively. (Ryan also won the Junior Iditarod in 1999 and 2000.) Ryan crossed the finish line at 2:52 p.m. March 15 with nine dogs in harness. Robert crossed the finish line at 7:33 p.m., March 15, with eight dogs in harness.
An indigenous musher known for his treks across Alaska, Canada and Norway also finished well in his second Iditarod. Adventurer/author/TV producer Lars Monsen, Sami, finished 26th, an improvement from 29th in his rookie year in 2016. He crossed the finish line with nine dogs in harness.
In the end, and for the sixth consecutive year, the race belonged to a Seavey.
Mitch Seavey and his team crossed the finish line at 3:40 p.m., March 14, with 11 dogs in harness to keep the championship of the Last Great Race on Earth in the family. Overall, it’s the seventh Iditarod won by a Seavey (Mitch, 2004; his son, Dallas, 2012; Mitch, 2013; Dallas, 2014, 2015, 2016; Mitch, 2017).
Dallas Seavey crossed the finish line at 6:24 p.m. March 14 with seven dogs in harness for second place, followed five minutes later by Nicholas Petit, who had challenged the Seaveys for much of the race.
Mitch Seavey took his mandatory 24-hour layover midway into the race, at Huslia (mile 478), with well-timed rests throughout the race that kept his team fresh; they never went below 8 or 9 mph between 10 of 16 checkpoints, with bursts of 11 mph between Koyukuk (mile 564) and Nulato (mile 586) and 12.05 mph between Nulato and Kaltag (mile 633) to take a lead he never yielded.
After six consecutive Seavey championships, four-time winner Dallas is only 29 years old.
Iditarod veteran Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, is good friends with the Seaveys and other mushers. He said they’re training regimen is no secret, and he’s surprised other mushers haven’t followed their lead.
“They can be beaten, but it’s going to take doing what they do,” Schaeffer said. “They have it down to a science.”
Schaeffer said the Seaveys do two mock Iditarods a year – each 1,000 miles – and Mitch’s dogs are trained to run 10 mph.
For their first- and second-place finishes, father and son took home nearly $140,000 combined – the winner also receives a new Dodge Ram 4×4 worth $40,000 — and the benefits to their businesses that the championships bring.
Iditarod Trail veteran Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, says he hopes more sponsorship money will become available to rural Alaskan mushers to enable them to devote more time to training. Mushers in areas like Akiak, where Williams is from, have to take time off from work to train. And when snow is light, that requires traveling to where the snow is.
Besides vigorous training, winning will require that aforementioned “science” – knowing when to rest and when to run, knowing when to pace and when to kick it out, and having a strategy (one year, Dallas Seavey rested off the trail so mushers behind him would think he had continued on. They extended themselves pursuing a phantom; he and his well-rested team burst past them later).
Schaeffer points to other young mushers he sees as future Iditarod Trail winners: Kaiser, Diehl, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the Iditarod 2013 Rookie of the Year, who finished fourth this year and has five top 7 finishes in five Iditarods.
“I raced against Pete and Richie in the K-300, and I was so proud of those guys,” Schaeffer said. “They’re destined to win [the Iditarod Trail ] at some point.”
Amid the victories, significant sadness with the loss of race dogs
Five dogs died during the Iditarod Trail this year, one when he got loose from his handler and was struck by a car in Anchorage.
Shilling, a three-year-old male from the race team of Roger Lee, died 10 miles from Unalakleet; Lee withdrew from the race in the interests of his team. A necropsy by a veterinary pathologist determined “extensive pulmonary edema was the most significant abnormality,” the Iditarod Trail press office reported, and “Further tests will be conducted in an attempt to identify the underlying cause of the edema.”
Flash, a four-year-old male on Katherine Keith’s team, collapsed in harness and died shortly thereafter, the Iditarod press office reported. A board-certified veterinary pathologist [determined the] cause of death was consistent with acute aspiration pneumonia.”
Groovey, a member of John Baker’s team, died when he was struck by a vehicle in an intersection in Anchorage. According to the Iditarod press office, Groovey got loose at his handler’s residence and was reported missing to Animal Control. The following day, Groovey’s body was found not far from the intersection of Northern Lights and Bragaw, “where he apparently had been hit by a vehicle.”
The Iditarod Trail Committee changed its policy regarding the air transport of Iditarod sled dogs after Smoke, a two-year-old male from Scott Smith’s team, died unexpectedly during a flight from Galena to Anchorage. Smoke was dropped from the race in Manley Hot Springs on March 7 because of a wrist injury.
“We hadn’t anticipated that dogs could overheat while in transport at altitude and in winter conditions,” race marshal Mark Nordman reported. “Unfortunately, we’ve now learned that they can. Although we have used this configuration successfully in the past, these specific actions are being implemented to minimize the possibility of similar incidents in the future: no longer transporting dropped dogs in dog coats, and; ensuring that flight configurations we use for the remainder of the race provide for cool cabin temperatures and increased ventilation.”
Deacon, a two-year-old male in Seth Barnes’s team, died on March 9, just prior to Barnes’ arrival at the Galena checkpoint. A necropsy performed by a veterinary pathologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks found “abnormalities,” but the “underlying cause of death was not determined,” Nordman reported. “Further tests are being conducted to complete the necropsy study.”
How times have changed
In the 1973 Iditarod — the first — Dick Wilmarth won with a time of 20 days 0 hours 49 minutes 41 seconds.
Emmitt Peters, the Yukon Fox, carved six days off the winning time in 1975, finishing in 14d 14h 43m 45s. That record would hold until Joe May’s win in 1980 (14d 7h 11m 51s) but was better than Libby Riddles’ winning time in 1985 (18d 0h 20m 17s).
The first musher to complete the Iditarod in less than 10 days was Doug Swingley in 1995 (9d 2h 42m 19s). John Baker’s 2011 win set a record at 8d 18h 46m 39s; that record would later be broken by Dallas Seavey in 2014 (8d 13h 4m 19s). Today, the record and the title — and the distinction of being the oldest musher to win the Iditarod Trail — belong to Mitch Seavey (8d 3h 40m 13s).
Incidentally, the last finisher in the 2016 Iditarod Trail was Mary Helwig (the last musher hadn’t crossed the finish line in the 2017 race as of this writing). Helwig’s time of 13d 8h 51m 30s was faster than the winning times in 1973-80 and 1982.