Hospitality of coastal villages greets Iditarod mushers
“Those top, maybe up to 20 mushers used to stop at my house,” said Grace Morris while looking out over Norton Bay as her picturesque, spruce-filled hometown of Koyuk began welcoming the first wave of 2017 Iditarod mushers on Monday.
Morris reminisced about how dog drivers in the early years of the race were housed by village residents rather than at central checkpoints. “I lived down the beach in a two-story house. By the time they left my house, it smelled like dogs,” she joked.
“I think about Joe Redington and Herbie Nayokpuk, mostly,” continued Morris in reference to two of the race’s iconic legends. “At maybe three or four o’clock in the morning, Herbie Nayokpuk came knocking at my door and I had roasts and salad and soups waiting for him. He was eating and eating and he said, ‘This is better than a restaurant.’”
At 10:56 a.m., just as Morris was finishing her story, defending champion, and four-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey arrived as the third musher to follow the blaze-orange-tipped Iditarod Trail markers up from the Bering Sea ice to the Koyuk City Building turned Iditarod Checkpoint.
The fact that fresh, homemade reindeer soup is still available for mushers these days when they arrive in Koyuk was made evident every time the checkpoint door was opened, although Seavey didn’t seem to notice. He wasn’t making time for restaurant food, or any food for that matter. His singular purpose as he ascended the steady incline off the snow-covered beach was to push through town fast.
Seavey hurriedly brought his team to a halt near the row of white, nylon musher’s drop bags and stacks of bright blue, plastic-wrapped bales of straw that appeared to act as sentinels guarding the weather-worn checkpoint building.
He answered “yes” when head checker Darin Douglas asked him if he would be passing through, and then promptly inquired when Nicolas Petit had arrived. The answer was 9:00 a.m.
Seavey informed members of the volunteer veterinarian crew that he would be dropping a dog, bringing his total down to 11. He then hastily tossed several yellow heat bottles, a chunk of straw and some food in his sled bag. A mere eight minutes had elapsed when he passed Petit’s resting team of 13 content-looking blue-coated pooches, and charged back down toward the ice in second place.
That left only one, very familiar musher on the trail between Dallas Seavey and Nome – his father Mitch, himself a two-time champion. The elder Seavey had come onto the Koyuk checkpoint scene just before dawn at 7:24 a.m. Unlike his son, Mitch was able to supply his team of 12 with over two hours of rest before he departed at 9:46 a.m.
Each of the past two years the Seaveys had arrived at the Iditarod’s fourth-to-last checkpoint among the frontrunners. In 2015 and 2016 Mitch Seavey had been the one doing the chasing. Now the tables were turned and he was the rabbit. From Koyuk, a 170-mile chess match would begin.
Petit, however, was intent on keeping it a three-way battle. “Ninety percent speed ahead,” he said while tending to his dogs during their nearly three-hour layover. While Petit put booties on his dogs he said, “My plan is to get to White Mountain safe and sound, so we can go to Nome safe and sound, and finish with a beautiful dog team that people talk about.” He got back underway from Koyuk at 11:56 a.m. in third place.
As the circling airplanes and helicopters moved down the trail to stay with the leaders, the initial buzz on the ground subsided as well. Most of the four-wheelers and snowmachines had vacated the area around the Koyuk City Building. That left more space for the nearly dozen elementary students who were cross-country skiing around their hilly village while enjoying the sunny and windless first day of spring break.
This lull also allowed race prognosticators Greg Heister, Bruce Lee and Joe Runyan of the Iditarod Insider to set up shop near the dog-staging area, giving them a chance to banter about the upcoming conclusion to Iditarod 2017.
Lee postulated that Dallas Seavey blew through the Koyuk checkpoint so that he could rest quietly at a shelter cabin 18 to 20 miles down the trail. “He’s able to shave off the resting times,” he said.
“It’s a really good-looking team, but not nearly as animated as his dad’s,” reported Runyan. “He’s always trying to look for a chance for a slip-up, but he’s trying to lock down second.”
“He’s in the role of being the predator right now,” added Lee of the younger Seavey, “which is the smart thing to do.”
The inner workings of the city building stayed relatively quiet after the departure of Petit. You could tell the lead Iditarod checkpoint volunteer was comfortable with children, because she brought several calculators with her to Koyuk and was helping a folding-table full of local students use math to determine the possible arrival times of future mushers.
Later on, Runyan relaxed to work on his race blog at a table near the hanging blue tarp that cordoned off the vacant musher’s resting chamber. This gave him time to elaborate on the evolution of the Iditarod checkpoints.
“In my time in the early 80’s, rather than corral the dogs at a central checkpoint, we were assigned houses in the villages,” said Runyan. “The cultural experience you can’t forget because you made a lot of friends in the villages.”
“But over the course of time it was pretty undeniable that there was preferential treatment. So in fairness, it was decided to house dogs anonymously at the checkpoints,” added Runyan. “Those were great times. I had really good friends in Shaktoolik and here (in Koyuk) that I looked forward to seeing when I came through with the dogs.”
Later that afternoon, and further back down the line in Shaktoolik, mushers in the latter part of the top ten were resting their teams. Aliy Zirkle entertained a group of school-aged female admirers outside the welcoming Shaktoolik checkpoint as she bootied her crew. Pete Kaiser rested inside the building, which boasted tables laden with food. For a few days this would be a busy social gathering spot for mushers, townspeople, race volunteers, veterinarians and members of the media.
Shaktoolik resident Rhoda Asicksik sat at one of the tables and related her past experiences of housing mushers. “Back in the day my husband and I used to take in Rick Swenson,” she said. “He was always practically one of the first ones to arrive into Old Site, where we were living.”
“My mother used to be our neighbor across the street, and she would take in Susan Butcher and Joe Redington.” added Asicksik. “There was one time when Joe had this very bad mishap where he broke a rib or two, so he had to scratch here in Shaktoolik. My mom, bless her heart, chartered a plane for Joe Redington and all his dogs from here in Shaktoolik to Nome.”
Arguably the rowdiest and most energetic welcome of the day was bestowed upon race leader Mitch Seavey as a throng of children ran alongside his sled when he entered the Elim checkpoint at 3:28 p.m. A wise volunteer crew set spectator parameters for a crowd that went four deep.
“I’ve been traveling down the trail. This is stop number six,” said Teacher on the Trail Annie Kelley as she watched a business-like Seavey feed a dog team that gladly accepted his offering. She concurred about the hospitality along the way. “It’s just amazing. More food than you could ever want at the checkpoints. Everyone has been so welcoming.”