Turbulent Iditarod comes to an end
The 48th running of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race came to an end when musher Kaci Murringer arrived under the burled arch as the last team off the trail.
Murringer, of Willow, running a team of dogs out of Matt Failor’s 17th Dog Kennel, extinguished the flame of the widow’s lantern that burns throughout the race until the last musher is off the trail.
This Iditarod was unlike any other that Alaska has ever seen. While mushers were on the trail, the world changed due to COVID-19. This they didn’t expect. However, from start to finish, they were also pummeled by weather. First, heavy snowfalls in the very beginning, then bitter cold with minus 50°F coming out of the Alaska Range and then encountering warm temperatures, deep snow and stretches of brutal overflow at the coast, this race has had plenty of challenges.
Says Nome/Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister, “It was challenging, from the day one. Every run of the race had its own challenges, there was not one stretch of hard, fast trail.” He said while his team was prepared for plowing through deep snow and bitter cold temperatures, they were not ready to face the heat that occurred in form of southern blizzards once teams hit the coast. He said early on in the race, he changed his race plan. “In the beginning, I don’t pay attention to the teams around me and with the deep snow conditions, my schedule went out the window around Yentna,” Burmeister said. “I threw that schedule away and decided to run this race based on what’s best for the dogs.”
The front pack of mushers, lead by Norwegian Thomas Waerner who maintained a lead from Kaltag on, managed to mush into Nome before the worst of the weather hit. The middle pack and the last eleven mushers were pummeled by strong westerly and southerly winds that pushed water up into bays and river mouths, making for miserable conditions.
On Friday morning, Matt Failor, Sean Underwood and Tom Knolmayer were rescued via Blackhawk helicopter about 25 miles shy of reaching the finish line in Nome.
According to Nome Volunteer Fire Department and Search and Rescue Chief Jim West Jr. he received a request from Iditarod on Friday morning that the three mushers activated the distress signal on their GPS. Nome SAR reached out to the Alaska State Troopers to authorize the search and rescue. West said they had little information in what kind of shape the mushers were in, so they utilized the Alaska Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment’s aircrew and Blackhawk to get the mushers. West sent a ground crew of four snow machiners, Jake Stettenbenz, Chugie Farley, Benny Piscoya and Roy Walluk Jr. out. Additional snowmachiners were sent out with sleds and dog boxes. Two dog handlers and two EMTs boarded the Black Hawk.
At 10:15 a.m. the UH-60 Black Hawk launched from Nome, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Josh Claeys, the pilot in command of the helicopter that performed the search-and-rescue mission.
In addition to the COVID-19 threat and the ensuing gradual shut-down of life as usual in Nome, a series of warm blizzards, strong winds and wet snow complicated the Iditarod race even further. The southerly winds caused significant overflow along the coast and river mouths, destroying the trail and turning it into treacherous wet holes and sections of deep overflow. The three left White Mountain and encountered significant overflow in the creeks that run like veins through the Topkok Hills. One of the rescuers, Chugie Farley, said the mushers said they had been wet since traversing waist deep overflow at the Koocheblok (Kloberblok River).
The SAR team found the mushers at the Solomon River mouth. Farley said one sled was stuck in the overflow, the dogs were on the eastern side of the river, and rested on dry ground and out of the wet hole. The other two teams were still on the western side of the river and hunkered down there.
“They were inside of sleeping bags,” said Claeys. “The medics got them on oxygen and warmed up inside, and the dog handlers and some of Nome rescue stayed with the dogs and had plans to get them back to Nome,” Claeys said.
According to Farley – who is the son of Howard Farley, one of the race founders and first mushers of the Iditarod in 1973 — they rerouted the trail from Solomon River mouth north toward the Train to Nowhere, got them on the bridge and then escorted them on the Nome-Council Road toward Safety. There, at the last checkpoint about 22 miles east of Nome, the Iditarod veterinarians checked every dog and feed them a meal. They were then mushed to Farley’s camp, about four miles east of town, and then transported via dog trucks to the Nome Iditarod dog yard.
The mushers were flown to the National Guard Nome Army Aviation Operating Facility and arrived Friday morning at 11:15 a.m. Two ambulances awaited their arrival and transported them to Norton Sound Regional Hospital.
West said musher Underwood noted that he couldn’t feel his legs.
According to Jim West, some of the snow machiners who went to aid with the rescue, themselves ended up stuck in overflow at the Nome River, but self rescued and became unstuck.
An Iditarod statement said that all sled dogs and mushers are in good health. “Because of these rescue efforts and in accordance with rule 31, all three mushers did scratch from Iditarod XLVIII.”
At the same time, eleven mushers who were sitting out the storm in Elim had left and were on their way to White Mountain. They had tried to leave Elim the day before with two local trail breakers, but once they reached the top of Little McKinley, weather worsened and their trail breakers took off after a wolverine. The teams then turned around and went back to Elim, to make the push again towards White Mountain and ultimately Nome, where the last musher arrived on Sunday at 12:29 p.m. Out of 57 teams that started, only 34 reached Nome.
Due to strict measures to limit visitors to Nome and to get mushers, handlers and family out of Nome as fast as possible, this Iditarod was not as festive as it usually is. The finisher’s banquet is postpone to a yet to be announced date and time and just as soon as the last musher drove her dogs to the dog yard, Front Street became quiet and deserted.
For complete results go to www.iditarod.com