Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker examines one of G.B. Jones' dogs. Mushers who
plan to compete in the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race brought their dog
teams to Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla for mandatory veterinarian
check-ups on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. Photo / Marc Lester, Anchorage Daily
"All mushers are on the trail!" said KNOM Radio News Director Laureli Kinneen on Sunday evening of the 62 handler/dog teams now approaching the halfway point to Nome - about 4 days and a plethora of adventures away.
I get so much enjoyment every year in early March when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race takes off from Willow, Alaska. I'm sure partly to survive, and partly to share the sport with the world, the Iditarod organization has become a marketing machine. I don't mind, as a small investment of just over $30, about the price of a magazine subscription, gives me more than 12 days of great adventure. (It's a year's subscription, but the real draw, of course, is during the race).
I can watch short videos as the teams make their way along the trail, arrive in or leave checkpoints. I can read stories about and see photos of each day's action. And that darn GPS. A few years ago the Iditarod committee started requiring each sled to carry a GPS.
I did get a kick out of the humor of one musher, who handed his GPS unit to a volunteer pilot. Imagine race trackers' consternation when this musher's team began to travel backward, fast. They frowned on the joke, however, and now I spend about 9 fractured nights as I get up every couple hours to see where my favorite musher is in the standings. I get a little reprieve when mushers have to take a mandatory 8 or - 24-hour break.
The race began on Sunday, and by Tuesday evening the action was becoming more exciting. What's so exciting about a bunch of dogs traveling 1,150 miles through Alaska for a week? I think it's the stories that emerge as the days go by. Anything can, and does happen along the trail.
The trail is snow-covered and very fast this year, and that caused some problems right off the bat with dog teams that are running full out. Mushers have started dropping dogs that have sore paws, ankles and shoulders.
Lance Mackey, who has pulled out a history-making four wins in a row the past four years, had to drop his experienced lead dog Maple at an early checkpoint with a sore shoulder. He pulled into the Nikolai checkpoint on Tuesday with three dogs in the basket. He'll drop them for volunteers to care for until after the race, whittling his team to 12. Mackey said the dogs are experienced and in shape, but for some reason, the little problems are showing up. It's now Friday, and Mackey is down to 9 dogs, but it appears to be a powerhouse 9 as he is hovering right around third place with teams that still have up to 15 dogs.
He appeared a little discouraged earlier in the week, but he appeared that way a couple years ago too, when his team suffered a bout of digestive problems on the trail. He babied them along and within a few days, they all recovered and he won the race. So don't count him out yet. Mackey is known for doing his best when the odds are stacked against him.
Long-time musher and Iditarod icon Martin Buser, for whom Mackey worked as a teen, is tearing up the trail. He was first into the McGrath checkpoint with a strong 16-dog team. He dropped one dog with a sore muscle, and quickly hit the trail again. Buser, who has won the Iditarod four times in his career, is running in fifth place on Friday.
One of the big stories that emerged before mushers hit the halfway point in the race is the number of wrecks in the "steps," a series of elevation drops and curves in the Happy River Gorge that drop the trail over a cliff onto a frozen river.
Musher Judy Currier came around a curve and down a step so fast that she didn't have time to steer her sled past a tree, and instead crashed into it, stopping her team cold. One dog was under the sled but popped free and was fine. The video of the crash is chilling, though, and illustrates how even the modern Iditarod trail has its share of nasty surprises just waiting for an inattentive musher.
Sebastian Schnuelle, who is running at the front of the pack today, also crashed in the steps. The winsome, wild-haired Schnuelle is a serious contender who is always at the front of the pack.
Rookie musher Nancy Yoshida also wrecked on the Steps, losing both runners on her sled and tangling her dogs in the trees. At last word, she was awaiting help and a spare sled, but her race is over.
Rick Swenson, the only five-time winner in Iditarod history, broke his collarbone in the Steps. But he taped himself up and went on, tackling the treacherous Dalzell Gorge and continuing down the trail. These mushers have grit to spare.
On Thursday, competitive musher Mitch Seavey was cutting open a bale of straw to bed down his dogs, when his folding knife closed on his hand, injuring him badly enough to end his race and send him to Anchorage for emergency treatment.
Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker is somewhere on the trail, caring for the dogs. He texted me to tell me that he appeared on the back page of the Anchorage Daily News. I called the News and they graciously allowed us to reprint the photo, so I'm sharing it here. The photo shows Walker at his first assignment - the pre-race vet checks of the dog teams.
Check out www.Iditarod.com or www.adn.com for the latest on the race. Expect the winner to reach Nome as early as Monday, if trail and weather conditions remain as fair and fast as they have been so far.
But remember, anything can, and usually does, happen on the way to Nome.