Iditarod 2015: Yukon River strategies in play

Iditarod 2015: Yukon River strategies in play
March 14, 2015 Staff report
FLASHBACK-- Iditarod teams have faced much harsher conditions since Monday when they passed under the Parks Highway bridge in Nenana.

FLASHBACK– Iditarod teams have faced extreme cold conditions since Monday when they left highway communities behind passing under the Parks Highway bridge in Nenana.

Following the Iditarod’s first-ever northern detour through Huslia, mushers are seeing the payoff of their run-rest strategies and wagers placed against trail conditions.

Competitive teams took their required 24-hour rests at various checkpoints along the 100-mile stretch from Ruby to Huslia. Mushers who delayed giving dogs their one big snooze, most notably Nome’s own Aaron Burmeister, gambled. Might a long early push early on, followed by the big rest, yield fresher dogs down the stretch?
Leading the 1,000-mile race at any point carries risk. Conditions can change quickly as Jeff King found out last year, bowing to a storm and accepting a disqualifying snowmachine ride to Safety– less than 25 miles from clinching his 5th crown.
Even without a freak storm, mere gusts of wind can leave lead dogs busting through drifts for miles on end. And if conditions are powdery? Imagine paws churning sand.
Trails may also harden up with use, making travel swifter for those who follow.
Complicating matters further, this year mushers battled temperatures dipping into the 40-below range traveling the Yukon. Extreme cold that creates noticeable friction under runner plastic, particularly among night-traveling teams.
Two-time champion driver Mitch Seavey cited his team’s sluggishness moving up the river as he opted to take his 24-hour break in Ruby, just over miles earlier than Burmeister’s stop in Huslia. Four-time champ Jeff King & Aliy Zirkle split the difference, pushing through to Galena before bedding their dogs down for the Iditarod’s one long respite.
Overnight Friday, King overtook the frontrunner’s team basking in Huslia’s 24-hour straw. Zirkle, likewise, leapfrogged ahead of Burmeister as she rolled through Huslia, then caught King resting in Koyukuk.
Less than a week before, 78 dog teams, separated by 2-minute intervals, left the starting chute fronting Pike’s Landing in Fairbanks. 2015’s “restart” marks only the second time in the race’s 43-year history that poor-snow conditions inSouthcentral Alaska caused organizers to shift the race north, sending teams down the Tanana River toNenana.From there, racers continued toward the Yukon following the historic route taken by the “Serum Run” mushers relaying vaccine needed to quell Nome’s 1925 diphtheria epidemic. In Ruby teams linked up with Iditarod’s usual northern checkpoints. Hardly traditional, however, since 2015 features a 150-plus mile ¬†Galena-Huslia-Koyukuk detour for extra mileage.
Nenana Iditarod checkpoint

The Iditarod field has spread out some 250-miles since 78 teams transited Nenana over 7 hours Monday, March 9.

The day of the restart it took just seven hectic hours for all 78 dog teams in this year’s race to pass through¬†the highway checkpoint town of Nenana.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, March 13, Zirkle’s team, still 16-strong, rested in Nulato. Five teams had scratched. The 73-team field now stretched 250 trail miles back to Ellen Halverson’s resting team in Ruby.
Two hours later, Burmeister rolled straight through Nulato, reclaiming the lead.
Fifty miles ahead comes the next strategic move. This one involves rest times in Kaltag.
Ninety hard miles separates Kaltag, Iditarod’s last Yukon River checkpoint from Unalakleet, the first stop along Alaska’s Bering Sea Coast. Tired teams inevitably loose steam on the traditional portage route connecting Athabaskan villages of the Interior with Norton Sound’s Yup’ik communities.
Thus, drivers who blast through Kaltag without stopping– will it be Zirkle?– usually aim to give their dogs a break at a cabin 2-3 hours down the trail.
So, don’t overlook teams passed up in Kaltag. The annals of the race show that teams resuming the chase within 4 hours of the leader departure from Kaltag are all within striking distance.
Look to Unalakleet to reveal 2015’s true contenders.

 

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