Bethel musher brings Iditarod to close
By Diana Haecker
With Red Lantern musher Victoria Hardwick of Bethel arriving under the burled arch in Nome on Monday, March 18 at 1:51 p.m. Iditarod XLVII came to an official end. Hardwick finished the race in 14 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes and 49 seconds.
Of 52 dog teams that started on Sunday, March 3 in Willow, 39 mushers finished and made it to Nome.
Notably, Bethel musher and 10-time race veteran Pete Kaiser won the race and thus the 2019 Iditarod was bookended with a Bethel musher up front and one bringing up the rear.
Since Hardwick and Kristin Bacon finished after the Sunday finisher’s banquet at the Rec Center, they were treated to their own Red Lantern banquet on Monday night at the Mini Convention Center.
Iditarod pioneer Howard Farley led the ceremony and said that every musher who finishes the Iditarod trail deserves a decent meal, “more than a rubber chicken.” Farley told of the times when the finish line was nothing more than a Kool-Aid line sprinkled in the snow on Front Street and explained how Fox Olson built the first burled arch as a worthy monument to finish a monumental feat under. Farley recounted Olson’s words saying, “I didn’t spent $10,000 and came a thousand miles to finish across a Kool-Aid line.”
Traveling the trail —may it have been in the Iditarod’s inaugural year 1973 or in 2019 — still transforms those who traverse 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness by dog team. Not only does weather and trail conditions figure into the race and how well mushers mentally respond to these monumental challenges, the hardest challenge is to keep it together in managing a dog team composed of 14 sled dogs, needing care, proper feeding, watering and resting. Consensus amongst this year’s mushers — from first to last, champions to rookies — was how tough trail conditions were this year. Despite the lack of harrowing coastal storms or bitter cold temperatures, the opposite posed equally challenging conditions. Warm temperatures prevailed throughout the race, melting ice bridges and causing creeks to remain open; sections of trail of bare ground and unforgiving tussocks before the halfway point, miles and miles of overflow on the Yukon River, more open water and holes on the portage trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet. The unprecedented sight of open ocean instead of frozen sea ice, greeted the mushers at the coast. Wind, blowing snow and trail obliterated by snowdrifts characterized the last few hundred miles to the finish line. A few dog teams quit on their mushers and demanded rest and those who read it right, granted it. Frontrunner Nic Petit of Girdwood seemed to head toward his first victory when his dog team left Shaktoolik barking and screaming only to sit down 14 miles into the run, with the shelter cabin in sight. In an Iditarod Insider video Petit emotionally recounted his night on the ice and theorized that his team remembered the spot from last year, when he took a wrong turn, got lost, but eventually found the trail again to finish in second place.
Other teams also had a tough time and stalled.
“Life Below Zero” reality TV personality Jesse Holmes, who sat in fifth place, took 36 hours to get from Koyuk to Elim, a distance of 48 miles. He ended up giving his dogs a rest and finished in 27th place. Rookie Victoria Hardwick took more than 22 hours from Elim to White Mountain and then another 21 hours from White Mountain to Safety. At the Red Lantern banquet she said that she had leader issues and when it became apparent that none of her dogs wanted to lead, she picked up the gangline and lead her team. She theorized that she through leading by example, she gained her dogs’ respect and they posted a blazing fast time of 2 hours and 43 minutes for the last 22 miles from Safety to Nome. Howard Farley, whose first Iditarod took him 31 days to finish, remarked laughingly that she did it in half the time. Rookie and twitter celebrity Blair Braverman stalled between Kaltag and Unalakleet for nearly 40 hours. Iditarod veteran Sarah Stokey spent 38 hours between Elim and White Mountain; Matt Failor had a rough time between Shaktoolik and Koyuk and turned back to Shaktoolik to rest. At the finish line he told the crowd that he diagnosed a “mismanagement” mistake on his part to leave Shaktoolik with dogs that hadn’t eaten and were not optimally hydrated. He didn’t want to intrude on Nic Petit, who was at a shelter cabin between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, he returned to Shaktoolik. After the rest, Failor’s race continued smoothly.
The rough trail left its marks. Talkeetna musher Anja Radano crashed into an open whole at the technical difficult part of the Gorge early on in the race and sustained a broken rib and badly injured leg. She continued on from checkpoint to checkpoint and toughed out the handicap. She thanked Kristin Bacon for the company on the trail as both made their way to Nome.
Each musher had to say something about the trail and Jeremy Keller summed it up, “We mush on trails in the Iditarod that we would never train on.” The Knik musher described the wind on his run between White Mountain and Nome, saying he’s never been in wind like that. Other mushers highlighted the camaraderie that develops amongst them as they help each other out fixing sleds, motivating each other and sharing dog or people food. Stokey, who ended up being in trouble at Little McKinley motivated Charley Benja who contemplated to scratch by saying, “It’s only two more runs to Nome!” She later had to remind herself of her own pep talk. Rookie Jessica Klejka of Bethel highlighted the honor of traveling with legends, as she found herself in the company of four-time Quest and Iditarod Champion Lance Mackey. Martin Apayauq Reitan, no rookie when it comes to wilderness travel, thanked Joar Ulsom for sending a sled out to White Mountain as Reitan broke his but managed to fix it. He thanked Lance Mackey for advice that he didn’t take to heart, “I wish I would’ve done it your way, Lance,” he said.
Lance Mackey earned the Most Inspirational Musher award after having come back despite nagging health issues with his hands. Surgery last fall resulted in the doctor telling him that he could run the Iditarod again and there he was. Before the race he told the Nugget that he had unfinished business from having had to scratch from the Iditarod prior. Depression set in and he doubted himself. However, after the successful surgery that reset his fingers, he received the OK from the doctors and ran the trail for the joy of it. Mackey finished in 26th place and celebrated the feat with his young family at the finish line in Nome Friday. Another four-time champion who tried to run for the joy of it was Martin Buser. He apologized for the past four years of “crankiness” due to not winning, and said he finally learned to heed the advice of his wife Kathy: “Just relax.” Rookie of the Year Ed Hopkins, who has run and finished the Yukon Quest multiple times, said he has never felt so mentally and physically depleted as after this race and stated, “This race is much tougher than the Quest.”
Mats Pettersson of Kiruna, Sweden, received the coveted Sportsmanship Award for helping fellow musher Linwood Fiedler find and retrieve his dog team. After Rohn Fiedler’s carabiner, a piece of hardware that connects the sled to the dogs’ gangline, broke and he saw his team take off and him being left behind with the sled. Pettersson was the next musher to come by, he hooked Fiedler’s sled to his rig and they went down the rough trail, looking for the lost dogs. It was night, they shone their headlamps around and eventually spotted what looked like a lot of reflective trail markers way off on the glare ice of the Post River. Fiedler realized it’s the reflections of his dogs’ eyes and he walked to his dogs, saw that no injuries were sustained, untangled the team and led them back to the sled. Recounting the event brought tears to Fiedler’s eyes.
On the lighter side, Jeff Deeter told a story of traveling with four-time champion Jeff King, heckling him about his age. In one checkpoint, King inadvertently took Deeter’s boots off the drying rack and continued on his race. Deeter noticed his boots gone and instead a brand-new, dry pair of Neo’s with the writing KING on the drying rack. “They were new, and had arch support!” Deeter exclaimed. A few hundred miles up the trail, he caught up with King but a boots exchange did not take place. Deeter said, “Jeff, it was an honor to mush in your boots to Nome.”
King, who has started the race 29 times, has four championships under the belt and 20 top 10 finishes, also echoed that it was an incredibly tough trail. He finished in 10 days and a bit over 13 hours. He reflected on this, saying, “When I first won it, I won in 10 days and 15 hours and I set a new race record that only stood for a year, but I set it,” he said.
Two teams this year had the honorable task to give one last ride to a special person. Joar Leifseth Ulsom carried and scattered Iditarod musher Rudi Demoski’s ashes on the trail. Aaron Burmeister honored Jens Hildreth and brought him to Nome in his sled.
This year’s finish set no course record, but the trail did not allow for such a feat. Warm temperatures posed problems with food drops and mushers carefully smelled the meat before they fed it to their dogs. Drop bags with slimy and thawed fish were discarded. Warm weather can cause digestive problems. In an interview days after the race finish, last year’s champion and this year’s runner-up Joar Leifseth Ulsom said his dog team was a bit sick with a stomach bug at the start of the race but that by the time they took their 24-hour layover in Takotna, the dogs were over it. “We had a challenging trip with rough trail, rain and water and overflow and all that,” he said. In addition, he had to return some key lead dogs. “I was nervous for a while that I had to back down and if I should focus on just finishing the race or if I had good enough lead dogs to be in the race. Dodge was a super dog that stepped up and finished the race in single lead. Overall it was a challenging race but I had a lot of fun traveling with the people around me,” he said.
Pete Kaiser, 31, had been focused on winning the Iditarod for some time. “This year I felt this was the most talented team I’ve ever driven,” he said in an interview with the Nome Nugget. “Our training was …at times weather didn’t allow us to train as much as I would’ve liked to, I guess sometimes these things can be a blessing in disguise. My confidence was a little set back by the lack of training but I knew the dogs talent-wise were fully capable of winning.” Kaiser, who lives and trains out of Bethel, managed to create a life around his dogs and the pursuit to run premier dog races. As a young kid, he got into dog racing and his parents Ron and Janet encouraged him. Kaiser gave college a try but after the first year decided that it wasn’t for him and he returned to Bethel informing his parents that he will be a professional dog musher from then on. They were OK with it and supported his decision. Working seasonally for Knik Construction/Lynden in the summertime allows Kaiser to fully train in the fall and winter. He said this training season shaped up poorly as the Bethel weather did not cooperate. The fall was too warm, he was doing laps around Bethel in a fourwheeler until November, December offered some good snow and training went well until the Kuskokwim 300 in mid-January and then weather really deteriorated. He gave the dogs a big chunk of time off after Kuskokwim but then the weather didn’t allow him to resume training. “It wasn’t the weather or trail conditions that allowed for long miles and I didn’t feel it would benefit the dogs at all, so a there was lot of sitting,” he said. He said he got nervous as the race date approached but 10 days before his departure for Anchorage, some decent training could take place. “I didn’t know if it was enough to win. To win, it feels like you have to have everything go perfect throughout the season and throughout the race. But obviously it worked.”
He thought, “I’d have to have Bethel style racing conditions to give me chance at winning, because this team really accelerates on hard fast trails, that’s what they like, that’s what they’re used to and good at, but obviously they were good at slow going trail, too.”
Despite the challenges that he, too, encountered on the trail, he said, “They seemed to enjoy the race.”