Iditarod 46: Two mushers rescued from blowhole
The 2018 Iditarod came to an end when the last musher, Magnus Kaltenborn and his 13 sled dogs arrived under the Burled Arch on Saturday morning at 11:13 a.m. Kaltenborn finished the race, which took the southern route trail, in 12 days, 20 hours and 13 minutes.
He arrived in Nome as yet another snowstorm was developing, which dumped another load of snow on Nome and the region, accompanied by strong winds. It was not weather to be trifled with and one could almost hear a collective sigh that all mushers were safely off the trail and accounted for. The Bering Sea coast once again lived up to its reputation that puts fear in the most seasoned musher and outdoors person. A snow storm with high winds between a feared stretch between Shaktoolik and Koyuk obliterated the trail and visibility, which cost Nicolas Petit the lead in the race. Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom managed to find the trail and arrived in Koyuk first, which allowed him to take command of the lead. Petit and three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey were in pursuit, but could not catch the Norwegian, who finished the race in the early morning hours on Wednesday, March 14 at 3 a.m.
Weather cooperated for the most part on Wednesday and Thursday seeing mushers arrive in Nome one after the other.
Altogether 52 of the 67 who started made it to the finish line.
But the notoriously dangerous stretch of trail known as the “Blowhole” between Topkok and the Bonanza bridge lived up to its reputation and wreaked havoc with 77-year-old Jim Lanier and his team on Thursday night.
The GPS tracker on Lanier’s sled showed that his team veered off the trail, which leads over a driftwood-studded sandbar along the southern Seward Peninsula shore. The team was heading for the sea ice. Lanier managed to turn them around but could not proceed due to exhaustion and his sled being stuck on driftwood. So he huddled with his dogs in the cold darkness. Musher Larry Daugherty, who also happens to be an oncologist from Anchorage, did not realize Lanier was there as he drove his team by. The next musher to arrive was incidentally “mushin’ mortician” Scott Janssen. He stopped and tended to Lanier. With hypothermia setting in, the two tried to keep each other warm. According to Craig Medred’s blog, three Idita-Bikers came by, including Nome’s doctor Phil Hofstetter.
Scott Janssen asked them to find his satellite phone to call his wife and for help. One of the bikers found the phone in the sled bag and dialed the numbers since Janssen’s hands were too cold to push the buttons. Then the bikers send a message to Hofstetter’s wife to alert the authorities and send for help.
Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said that the ITC received notification on Friday morning, 7 a.m. “A search and rescue team was immediately notified and then a plan was put in place to safely extract both dog teams and both mushers.” Nome Search and Rescue was notified and went out to help the men. Race marshal Mark Nordman also asked musher Jessie Royer, who had finished her race and was at Safety by snowmachine, to drive out and do a welfare check on the two.
Mike Owens, who professionally works with Nome medical emergency services, is also a musher, Iditarod finisher and ITC board member. He assisted in the rescue along with a group of Nome SAR EMTs. While Lanier and Janssen were found and snowmachined to Safety, from where they were flown by helicopter to Nome, Owens and his fellow EMTs found the two dog teams and hitched them all into one big 24-dog team. Owens, with windburns in his face, reported on Saturday as he saw his son-in-law drive his dog team up the ramp off the sea ice and into Nome, that they mushed the dogs to Farley’s camp from where they were trucked to the dog lot in Nome. Asked how bad the winds have been at the blowhole, he said, “Oh, it was ugly.”
“I met Jim and Scott at the Nome airport when they arrived by helicopter and they are with their loved ones and also in good health,” said Nordman. The two refused medical attention.
This was almost Janssen’s third finish in six attempts to run the Iditarod.
For the selfless act of sticking with his friend and fellow musher, so close to the finish line, Janssen received the coveted Sportsmanship Award.
The news of a dog death from Katherine Keith’s team cast a shadow over the joyous atmosphere at the finish line. The dog named Blondie died in Unalakleet. A veterinary pathologist completed a gross necropsy on the five-year-old male dog and determined that the cause of death was consistent with aspiration pneumonia. Head veterinarian Stu Nelson explained that this type of pneumonia occurs when stomach content is burped up and is inhaled into the lungs.
There will be further tests done. Last year at the same checkpoint another one of Keith’s dogs died.
As the banquet went underway on Sunday, another snow and windstorm gathered strength and pummeled Nome and the region on Monday. Luckily all mushers were off the trail, including two that were withdrawn from the race. Race marshal Mark Nordman withdrew Steve Watkins and Tara Cicatello from the race in Unalakleet, citing the competitive rule. “Both Tara and Steve faced very tough conditions along the Yukon River, which led to them falling behind in the race field,” said Nordman. “Due to this distance behind the rest of the field, it unfortunately was not feasible to keep the infrastructure in place to support their race efforts going forward.”