Dirt, gravel & boulders: Mushers describe the roughest part of the Iditarod trail yet
Under light snowfall in Takotna Wednesday morning, Jessie Royer's dog team slept as she transferred gear from one sled to another. Her first sled is fine, but she says she always swaps sleds in Takotna.
The veteran musher is taking her mandatory 24-hour rest 329 miles into the race, after successfully traversing a portion of trail that is often considered one of the worst.
"There’s definitely places, you know, that are nice to get through, like the Alaska Range, the Dalzell Gorge, the Buffalo Tunnels," she said. "It’s always a little nerve-wracking because some years can be not so good, you know, and then other years it’s not too bad, so it’s always just a nice feeling to get through there."
The infamous Dalzell Gorge is along the 35-mile trek from Rainy Pass to Rohn, and in years with less favorable conditions, has been a race-ender for some mushers.
"It was pretty trenched," Travis Beals said Tuesday at the checkpoint in Nikolai. "There was good snow for sure, but when you put a brake on a sled, you kind of make a trench, right? It's almost kind of like shoveling it, so each team that goes down slowly starts to kinda dig little holes and that's just obstacles for the sled."
He suspected mushers toward the back of the pack would have a tougher time with the Dalzell Gorge.
Matthew Failor wasn't far behind Beals coming into the Rohn checkpoint.
"You know, it had its moments where it was kind of crazy and dangerous, but after the Gorge was more wild," he said, "like just straight-up dirt."
Failor worked to repair his sled in Nikolai, after his drag broke and he almost lost the main bolt out of his brake.
Several mushers said their sleds survived the rough patch leaving Rohn, but they needed to replace their plastic sled runners in Nikolai.
"They got beat up," said Ryan Redington, exchanging pink plastic for a bright green, "mainly on the Post River outside of Rohn. We were up in the boulders."
He said he also encountered lots of glare ice, "My dogs didn’t want to run on ice so they ran on the boulders."
Wednesday in Takotna, Redington described a bad crash that didn't hurt the sled but left him bruised and sore.
"I crashed hard outside of Rohn and hit a tree on a big piece of driftwood and I bounced off of that and tipped the sled and was dragging on the rocks for a while before I could stop the dogs," he said, "and so I was a little bit sore there."
Three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey was also changing his plastic runners in Nikolai on Tuesday.
"The gorge was probably better than it's been most years," he said, with the exception of, "a couple of hairy spots; there's always a few of those."
Like other mushers resting in Nikolai, Seavey said the worst part was past the Dalzell Gorge, just outside of the Rohn checkpoint.
"Leaving Rohn there was very little snow like always — for the first 20 miles —something that we expect, so it's always a bit of an adrenaline rush as you're leaving there and just hoping and praying that everything goes smooth," said Seavey.
He described mushing over big rocks and gravel for miles as, "a little more exciting than sometimes, but mostly just exhilarating."
Seavey and Aaron Burmeister described encountering six water crossings before reaching Nikolai. Burmeister said he chose to race that portion of the trail with one lead dog instead of two, and picked the dog on his team he knew was not afraid of water.
"Having one leader up there to drag you around and take you where you need to go makes a big difference," he said.
By the time they reached Takotna, Mats Pettersson and Charley Bejna had to change sleds to stay in the race.
Meanwhile, Shaynee Traska scratched at the checkpoint in Nikolai with ten dogs in harness.
She is the first musher to scratch since the official start of the race in Willow, narrowing the field to 51 mushers headed to Nome.
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