After fighting their way down an icy gorge and across a snowless expanse, a wave of Iditarod mushers hit the Nikolai checkpoint Tuesday telling tales of survival, not racing.
Some openly criticized the Iditarod Trail Committee’s decision to keep the race on its traditional route, rather than move the restart from Willow to Fairbanks and avoid portions of the trail made miserable by relatively warm weather.
Broken brakes: Musher Hans Gatt, a 12-time Iditarod finisher, said keeping the race on the traditional route was “totally irresponsible.”
The problem with the poor trail, the mushers say, is they could not set brakes on the ice and frozen mud well enough to control their sleds as dogs pulled them over, through and into the hazards. When their sleds got caught on stumps and rocks, several of them broke their brake.
One of those belonged to Hugh Neff, whose metal brake pedal broke in half.
“We’re going over trees, huge rocks, stumps. It’s a mine field out there,” Neff said just after arriving in Nikolai.
Danger: Many mushers carried wounds from the battle, having slammed their bodies on sleds and, in some cases, on trees and rocks. Some limped from one task to the next in Nikolai, feeding dogs and checking gear.
“They should not send people out there. It’s not safe,” said four-time finisher and two-time champ Robert Sorlie. “I’ve never been so scared before in my life.”
Mushers Jason Mackey and Rick Casillo echoed the sentiment, both saying “I thought I was going to die.”
Others said they did not want to second-guess the trail committee’s decision on the route. Race officials said the decision to keep the restart in Willow was based on trail reports two weeks before the race. Warmer weather since then made the trail more dangerous than they had anticipated.
Dogs: Veterinarians reported 11 dropped dogs in Nikolai late Tuesday after 40 teams had checked in. The only injuries were minor — sore shoulders and wrists, the vets said.
“It seems like the dogs fared better than the mushers,” veterinarian Bruce Nwadike said.
Dallas Seavey of Willow, the 2012 champ and one of the prerace favorites, nearly lost his team on the way to Nikolai when his sled hit a tree about 20 miles out of Rohn and the line connecting most of his team to the sled broke.
“I was doing a good job of dodging trees until that one,” he said. “I guess kind of out of instinct I started running and actually caught up with them.”
Seavey said the 12 dogs that got away looked stunned that he was running down the trail after them, so they slowed down. But the loose line of dogs sped up when he got close.
“It was kind of a running jump and I actually caught hold of something,” Seavey said.
Seavey said it was the worst he’d ever seen the Dalzell Gorge or the Farewell Burn, but he did not want to blame the trail committee for sending the mushers down the trail.
“Obviously somebody had to make the best decision they could. I don’t want to go with hindsight,” he said.
Race officials: Race marshal Mark Nordman said Tuesday night that the Iditarod Trail Committee had seen pictures of the trail and heard reports that convinced them the race could be safely run on the traditional route.
A “tremendous” amount of trail work was done, Nordman said, but higher temperatures in the days before the race started melted the snow cover, creating a hazardous route down the Dalzell Gorge and across the Farewell Burn.
The committee made the best decision they could at the time, Nordman said.
Reported by CASEY GROVE of the Anchorage Daily News from NIKOLAI, Alaska. Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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