Iditarod 44 is a wrap
Mary Helwig was the last musher to arrive under the burled arch on Saturday March 19. Helwig extinguished the widow’s lantern well before Sunday finisher’s banquet and with her arrival in Nome, Iditarod 44 wrapped up fast with several records broken.
Winner Dallas Seavey shaved off nearly two hours off his record he set in 2014 with eight days, 13 hours and four minutes. His 2016 run time was eight days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.
If it wouldn’t have been for his son, runner-up Mitch Seavey would now be the record holder as he finished the race in eight days, 12 hours and five minutes.
Tipping his hat to her great competitive spirit and ability to drive a dog team, Mitch Seavey joked that Aliy Zirkle was the only person who finished second to a Seavey more often than he has. This is the second year that Mitch came in second place after his son Dallas.
Third place finisher Aliy Zirkle arrived in Nome seven hours and 12 minutes after Dallas Seavey claimed his fourth championship title.
When usually the first mushers arrive on Tuesday evening, this year saw the winner come in the early morning hours and throughout the day, the siren kept sounding the arrival of musher after musher. That day alone, a big field of 19 competitive mushers came across the finish line, under bright blue skies, to a warm welcome from Nomeites, fans and their families. Noah Burmeister, born and raised in Nome, arrived in eleventh place in Nome. After having not run the race in 10 years, when he ran a “puppy” team for his brother Aaron, this year, he drove Alaskan Wildstyle Racing Kennel’s A-team, which propelled him to the honor of receiving the award for the most improved musher.
The next Nomeite to arrive under the burled arch was Melissa Owens Stewart, who finished in 49th place on March 17, with a run time of 11 days, three hours and 29 minutes (see story on page ?).
Nome’s Tom Jamgochian ran his first Iditarod and earned his Iditarod finisher belt buckle when he arrived in Nome in 57th position after 11 days 11 hours and 45 minutes on the trail.
As Dallas Seavey put it in his speech, every musher has to come to terms with a set of challenges along the trail. Jamgochian’s challenges presented themselves early on in the race. On the way to the ceremonial start, his truck was hit by a car running a stop sign and slamming into his vehicle. He still managed to show up on time to the start. At the Willow restart, Jamgochian, a brand new father to a baby girl, born on January 16 had to kiss his wife Amy and baby Magda good-bye and hit the long Iditarod trail. “Amy snuck in pictures of Magda and little notes in my food drop bags, so that kept me going when I hit my lows,” Jamgochian said. Fighting off a chest cold and the excitement of the race kept the Nome musher from sleeping for the first several days of the race. “Coming into Nikolai, I was wildly hallucinating from lack of sleep and finally was able to get two hours of sleep there,” he said. Pulling into Ruby his chest cold had worsened to the point where he couldn’t breathe and needed medicine from the health clinic, which opened for him at midnight. “I said, hey, I'm on a schedule I need to leave at 1 a.m. and they opened the clinic for me to give me meds that let me breathe again,” he said. According to Jamgochian, he experienced the lowest point in his race right there. In addition to his own health problems and the lack of sleep, a race veterinarian discovered shoulder issues on four of his sled dogs. “I thought I had to scratch right then and there,” Jamgochian said. However, the race vet talked him into continuing the race. So he did, albeit in a bad mood that the dogs picked up on. Three miles out of Ruby, the dogs turned around and bunched up into a knot that Jamgochian could only untangle by turning the team of 12 dogs loose on the Yukon. He straightened them out, hooked them back on the gang line and spent the next 45 minutes talking to them. “That taught me a lesson,” he said. “You gotta stay happy for the dogs, you can’t be in a bad mood.” After this, his race improved, he said. He managed to get used to getting by with two hours of sleep a day and the dogs found their rhythm of run, eat, rest – repeat. Jamgochian said the long stretch of trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet was gorgeous, but the moguls were not easy on the dogs. The 50 miles across the sea ice from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, a stretch that most mushers come to fear, treated the Nome rookie kindly. Whereas the frontrunners had to contend with a stiff headwind, Jamgochian cruised across the trail with zero wind and in a time of 5 hours and 44 minutes. From Koyuk on, he found himself thinking more and more about home in Nome, his wife, baby and mother. A reality check came in form of a fellow mushers stranded on the sea ice between Elim and Golovin, as the team had quit and didn’t move. “I thought, wow, this could be me,” Jamgochian said. So, his thoughts returned to the presence and getting his dogs to the next checkpoint. From White Mountain on, he entered home turf and the dogs knew it. As last year’s champion of the Nome-Council 200 race, his team recognized the familiar Topkok hills and the home stretch to Nome. When the siren went off to announce his arrival in Nome on Friday night, at 2:45 a.m. Jamgochian had an emotional moment of realizing that he indeed made it.
“I feel a profound sense of accomplishment,” he said. “It took a lot of work to get here.”
With an Iditarod finish to add to his list of accomplishments, Jamgochian now returns back to work as Nome’s assistant district attorney.
Aaron Burmeister’s brother Noah ran the competitive dog team out of their kennel Alaskan Wildstyle Racing. Born and raised in Nome and with mushing, Noah ran the 2004 and 2006 Iditarod with the kennel’s younger dogs to get them acquainted with the trail and give them a good experience for future competitive races. This year, Noah raced the kennel’s main team and finished among a fiercely competitive group of mushers in 11th place. Noah described the infamous trail sections such as the Happy River steps and the Dalzell Gorge as great. Farewell Burn, notorious for no snow, was a dirt trail but nothing worse than going through three sets of runner plastic happened to Noah. Burmeister said he was on a very competitive schedule and kept to it for the most part. Running the race in the top ten for the most part, he said he had no real low points in the race. However, he said, one of the low points was when Scott Smith passed him at Farley’s Camp, pushing him out of the top ten. “I’m extremely pleased with the race,” he said. He added that his brother has spent the last 25 years building a team that allowed him to run with the best dog teams in the world. “The dogs did all amazing,” he said. “We had eight veterans and eight two to three year olds in the team. They all stepped up to the plate.” Burmeister finished with nine dogs.
Burmeister offered the thought that every year, new improvements are made and that competitive racers are getting more and more efficient in their run-rest schedules and checkpoint routines.
Asked how the news of the snow machine attack on Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle impacted his race, Noah said it just made him more aware to flash his headlamp at snow machiners at night. “I think it was a terrible tragedy,” he said. In his 2004 race, Noah was camped out at the Yentna River and was almost run over by a drunk driver on snowmachine. “I saw him coming and blinked my lights at him,” Noah said. “Only 30 feet before hitting us, he veered off and went around the team.”
Attack on the Yukon
In the night of March 12, two teams were hit and injured by a drunk snowmachiner on the Yukon River close to Nulato. A dog from Jeff King’s team died and three were injured. Aliy Zirkle found herself also attacked by the same snowmachiner and one dog in her team was injured. According to court documents, Zirkle was on the trail on the Yukon River about five miles out of Koyukuk heading to Nulato when Arnold Demoski, after having consumed alcohol, came speeding up “ hit the side of her sled and flipped two of her dogs.” According to the trooper’s affidavit, Demoski turned the snowmachine around and Zirkle stopped and grabbed hold of her lead dog while the snow machine was coming right at them. “Demoski then turned the snow machine sideways so it was perpendicular to Zirkle and her team causing Zirkle to be scared of Demoski was trying to kill her and she grabbed a race marker that she held out in front of her towards the snow machine which then turned and headed away from her towards Nulato,” Trooper Robert Nunley wrote in the affidavit. An hour later, Demoski returned and passed Zirkle again at high speed, running brodies and going in circles around her. “He stopped 200 yards away and was revving his engine, causing Zirkle to be in fear he was trying to kill her before he drove off,” Nunley wrote.
Zirkle’s wheel dog Clyde was bruised in the incident and he could not continue on the race team.
According to a trooper release, the same driver hit Jeff King’s dog team from behind, about 12 miles out of Nulato. Nash, one of King’s dogs, was killed and five other dogs were injured. King was not injured.
Both King and Zirkle continued to race and finished in Nome. King said at the finish line that this was the closest call he ever had with a drunk driver. “It could’ve killed me and the whole team,” King said. “So, at the Denali Doubles last month I did a tribute to a little girl who lost her life to a drunk driver.” Fighting back tears, King paused and continued. “Who would’ve believed you had to worry about that on a dog team? But, em, the fact is that it happened. And it does happen. It happened in Nome before, it happens all over the state and let it be another lesson for the sanctity of life and responsible driving,” King said.
Aliy Zirkle issued a statement through the Iditarod website, thanking the Iditarod officials in Nulato for having given her the practical and moral support she needed to carry on. But she also stated how deeply the incident impacted her. “I have been mushing the trails of Alaska for over 20 years and lived in the Yukon-Koyukuk community,” her statement reads. “Not once have I felt in real danger from another human being. I am experienced with sharing the trails with snow machiners and other users, ensuring that I do everything I can to be seen and to keep my dog team safe. It is on these trails with my dogs that I feel most comfortable and confident. That changed on the morning of March 12. Over the course of almost two hours one man, by using his snowmachine, made prolonged, aggressive and what I believe to be deliberate threats to me and my team. For two hours, I felt like a hostage and I sincerely believe that our lives were in danger. I was terrified. Had it not been for my defensive reactions, we could have been maimed or killed,” Zirkle wrote. She continued to say that she is angry with only one man. “I also have no injuries. However, I am very sad and angry. I am thankful for all the overwhelming support from the public,” she wrote.
The Nulato Tribal Council issued a statement saying “It is with great regret and sadness that we offer our condolences to Jeff King for the loss of his dog Nash. We pray for the speedy recovery of the other injured dogs. Nulato recognizes the complex behavioral health issues that impact our village and we ask for prayers as we seek wellness for all. We will be monitoring the situation closely and commit to work with law enforcement.”
According to the statement, First Chief Mickey Stickman added “Over the years we have supported the race in all aspects from racers to dogs to logistics. Nulato has been recognized many times by the Iditarod Trail Committee for the community’s hospitality- we hope and pray this incident does not determine the future of the village of Nulato. The Native Village of Nulato apologizes for the harm to the mushers and their dog teams.”
Arnold Demoski, 26, of Nulato was arrested for two counts of assault in the third degree and one count of reckless endangerment, one count of reckless driving and six counts of criminal mischief in the fifth degree. He was remanded to the Fairbanks Correctional Center. Bail was set at $50,000. In a court video of Demoski’s first appearance in Magistrate Romano DiBenedetto’s court room, the judget said "If the state had asked for $500,000, I probably would have granted it, but I am not the prosecutor. I will honor the state's request for a $50,000 cash performance bond."
The judge added, “if these allegations are proven to a jury, it could amount to be an act of terrorism, quite frankly.”
At the finisher’s banquet, Aliy Zirkle only mentioned that she owes it to race judge Karen Ramstead, who talked her into continuing the race and to persevere. Zirkle arrived in Nome in third place.
In his speech, champion Dallas Seavey summarized the overall feeling of gratitude and perseverance. “This year was a challenging year for everybody involved in mushing,” Seavey said. “I don’t think there was a person involved in the Iditarod or the sport of mushing that doesn’t know anybody who is affect by some accident or tragedy or misfortune throughout the year and on the race itself. It’s pretty heartwarming to see that the community of mushers is just that: a community. Whether it was the willow fire or the misfortune that befell the Busers or a million other things. It was pretty awesome to see everybody come together. It is indicative not only about the sport of mushing but Alaska as a whole and the communities we pass through. We support and embrace each other,” Seavey said.
Out of 85 dog teams that started the race, 71 finished.