Iditarod: Mushers hunker down in Shaktoolik
By RB Smith
Fierce winds and drifting snow greeted mushers as they came into Shaktoolik last Sunday, March 13, forcing many to hunker down for the night and crowd into the small checkpoint.
The stretch from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik is the first segment of the Iditarod Trail that runs along the infamous Bering Sea coast, where sudden storms and howling winds notoriously hit mushers and their teams as they run the final 261 miles to Nome.
Unlike the bustling town of Unalakleet, though, Shaktoolik is a smaller village, with a population of around 300. The Iditarod checkpoint consists of just one building: the National Guard armory, which offers a cramped living space for all the volunteers and veterinarians, as well as a meager windbreak for the dogs.
Inside the armory is some seating and some bunks, but not much else. As of Sunday afternoon, the volunteers were still setting up internet to track mushers as they came in. The building’s water pipes weren’t working, so the volunteers were hauling water from the nearby power station.
On Sunday, temperatures around 10°F were undercut by a steady, cold, 20-mile-per-hour wind from the North, along with blowing snow that hampered visibility and built long drifts across Shaktoolik’s main road almost as quickly as the plows could clear them out.
When race leader Brent Sass pulled into Shaktoolik a little after 9 a.m., volunteers were still fighting the wind to adjust bags of straw and supplies. He spent just eight minutes in the checkpoint before pressing on to Koyuk.
Dallas Seavey, less than two hours behind, did the exact same.
As the day went on, the wind intensified. Nome’s own Aaron Burmeister was the third musher to make it in, a bit before 7:30 p.m., before a sizable crowd of village residents who had come out to cheer the mushers on. The strong wind, setting sun, and challenging stretch of sea ice that lay ahead made Burmeister settle his team in for the night.
Not far behind was Richie Diehl, who parked his dogs right behind Burmeister’s in the small wind shadow of the armory building. Straw blew into the faces of onlookers as the mushers tried to get their dogs comfortable. Volunteers moved bales of straw into a makeshift windbreak around the two tired teams.
When asked about the trail conditions, Diehl replied with a chipper “It’s fantastic!”
Burmeister added a growled, “He’s exaggerating.” Both mushers settled in to spend the night at the checkpoint.
At 9:15 p.m., Jessie Holmes came fifth into the checkpoint. He was followed by a pack of mushers, including Dan Kaduce, Mille Porsild, Ryan Redington, Michelle Phillips, Chad Stoddard, Pete Kaiser, Travis Beals and Mitch Seavey, who came in during the early morning hours.
Faced by a true windstorm on the ice, all the mushers decided to wait until the morning before continuing onward. They jockeyed for space in the small dog yard and even smaller armory building.
“It was really packed,” said volunteer Sophie Hearn. “We had some in bunks, and people on the couch. There were a lot of people in there.”
For public health reasons, the cramped armory building is only accessible to people in the “Iditarod bubble,” including volunteers and veterinarians who are tested for COVID-19 daily, along with the mushers themselves. Despite the close quarters, concerns about COVID infection were minimal.
As soon as the sun came up, the overnight crew set off to chase Sass and Dallas Seavey down the trail. By 8 a.m., the checkpoint was again almost empty. Monday morning saw a slight drop in temperature to around 5°F. The relentless wind hadn’t abated, but the night’s rest had most teams energetic and ready to move.
Later in the morning, around 9 and 10 a.m., Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Lev Shvarts, and Ramey Smyth made it into the checkpoint. They hung around for a few hours each, before shooting out after Matt Hall, who arrived at 12:30 p.m. and mushed straight through.
By midafternoon on Monday, things at the checkpoint had quieted down. Volunteers raked up the straw and dog poop scattered across the yard and took shifts getting some rest before the next mushers to come through.
For first-time volunteer Thomas Rich, the overnight extravaganza was both exhausting and exciting at the same time. Despite meager sleep, he was perky on Monday afternoon. “I think I’m getting into the rhythm of it today!” he said.
For residents of Shaktoolik, too, this year’s Iditarod has been a welcome return to an old rhythm. The village has been a staple checkpoint of the race since its inception, but the last two years have interrupted the cherished annual tradition. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world while the mushers were on the trail. Just two days before the first mushers arrived in Shaktoolik, the village was taken off the list of official checkpoints. No volunteers or vets flew in, and the armory was closed. The Iditarod asked village residents to drop straw and drop bags at a set location two miles away. But some in the community decided to go above and beyond, and quickly transformed a small house at the village’s old site into a shelter cabin.
In just 48 hours, Shaktoolik residents stocked the cabin with a wood stove, a cot, and ample firewood and food. Although they weren’t allowed to interact with the mushers directly, they left encouraging messages on the inside of the cabin.
“Wolverine Den! Warm Welcome to Shaktoolik! LOVE WINS!” read the inside of the door. Handmade signs cheering on specific mushers lined the interior walls.
“All the mushers said that year, Shaktoolik was the number one checkpoint,” said checker Gary Bekoalok proudly. He’s the main person responsible for marking mushers down when they arrive and spearheads the Iditarod team at the checkpoint. “The Iditarod matters a lot to us here,” he said.
In 2021, the Iditarod followed an alternate route that never made it to Shaktoolik – the race went from Deshka Landing to Iditarod and back— so this year marked the first time village residents have come face to face with Iditarod mushers in three years.
“It’s really good to have the Iditarod back,” said Lynn Takak, as the crowd swelled to greet incoming mushers on Sunday night. His dad was an Iditarod checker in the 70’s and 80’s, and before the armory became the official checkpoint, mushers would check in at his home. “I always helped with the race,” he said.
Racers wanting to hunker down in Shaktoolik – as they often do, given the village’s infamous wind – used to spend the night in people’s homes.
Ethel Fuller, another resident who was out waiting for mushers on Sunday, fondly recalled hosting famous musher Sonny Lindner in the 1970’s. “I was a young wife, we had just moved from the old site, and suddenly we were hosting Sonny!” she said. Another year, amid a particularly bad storm, stranded mushers gathered in the school gym to play locals in a game of basketball. “Some of them were pretty good,” Fuller added, laughing.
Some elementary school students had been assigned to follow specific mushers in school, and were eagerly rattling off the names on Sunday evening. Local favorites included Pete Kaiser and Apayauq Reitan.
Although many students were leaving for Anchorage on Monday – the high school boys’ basketball team made the state playoffs, a huge feat for the village of 300 people – young people still came out on Sunday night to cheer the mushers on.
For some residents, the Iditarod is also an opportunity to catch up with old friends. Leonard Takak waited outside for hours on Sunday to catch Aaron Burmeister – the two went to school friends during their childhood in Nome.
Leeann Sookiayak came by early Monday morning to give her friend Michelle Phillips a pair of fingerless gloves she had made, but was disappointed to learn that Phillips, along with the other mushers who overnighted in Shaktoolik, had already left.
It was especially poignant, because Sookiayak has been a proud Iditarod volunteer for 15 years. This year, because of concerns surrounding COVID, the volunteer team was limited to those in the “Iditarod bubble,” who are required to quarantine in a hotel in Anchorage and then take daily tests.
Sookiayak cleaned the armory to get it ready for the volunteers, but once the official Iditarod crew arrived, she wasn’t allowed inside. “It really breaks my heart in two,” she said.
Gary Bekoalok, the checker, said the community was split on this year’s COVID policies. On one hand, it’s good to keep the virus out of the village. But on the other, it hurts some residents that they can’t fully participate in the Iditarod like they normally do.
“COVID is something to be respected,” he said, “but we don’t want to live in fear.”
The most important thing, though, was that the mushers got to come through the town on their way to Nome. Bekoalok underscored the relationship between mushing and Indigenous culture in Western Alaska – his father had sled dogs, and while no one in the village mushes anymore, the Iditarod helps him feel connected to that tradition.
“Mushing is our heritage,” he said. “It’s our culture.”