Iditarod: Mushers enjoy Unalakleet hospitality
By Peter Loewi
On Sunday, the two front runners in the 2022 Iditarod had already passed, but the work at the checkpoint was only just ramping up. Volunteers and fans alike came in and out more frequently than mushers, working just as hard. Outside, there were dogs to check on and autographs to get. Inside, there were pancakes to be flipped and batteries to be charged. In Unalakleet, the sun and villagers were out in full force.
Sunday afternoon was full of revelry as the Iditarod returned after the pandemic forced an alternative race route last year, which did not included Bering Sea villages. Elders sat atop the embankment looking over the frozen slough that serves as a dog yard while children slid down the other side, colliding with a barrier of snow just bales of straw away from resting sled dogs. With the wind light through most of the day, even the spectators were in light jackets. The only complaint that anyone could have, and many mushers coming in did mention it, was the unrelenting glare ice for the last two hours down the portage.
Chad Stoddard listened to a volunteer veterinarian tell him that his team – of Dallas Seavey’s dogs – looks “on the whole, pretty good.” Next to them, Caelyn Attatayuk waited for Stoddard to sign her notebook. “That’s gonna be worth a lot someday!” the musher said.
One of the runners on Stoddard’s sled cracked on a hardened mogul, and then broke off on another one. He moved gear around to the front of his sled and shifted his weight on the rails into Unalakleet, where he waited for Travis Beals, who has said he would lend an extra sled. Nearby, Mille Porsild is in a similar situation, awaiting Mitch Seavey, and talking with villagers.
With daylight savings time forcing the sun late into the day, it was the wind picking up which drove people inside; those working outside started to feel their sweat chill. The path down from behind the post office to the yard was icy, even with the gravel layer, and throughout the night, vets and checkers took the slope slowly. Seeking respite from the dropping temperatures, people began to congregate in the checkpoint, where hungry souls gathered to feast.
Stoddard chowed down. “This is really nice here. They have seafood chowder with king crab in it, and all kinds of stuff you don’t normally get at different checkpoints or in your drop bags that you send out. Cake, cookies, salmon, chowder, caribou stew, pizza, everything,” he said.
Pete Kaiser said that if he could have anything just appear, it would be a cheeseburger.
The checkpoint has some staff tables and a large television showing the race tracker. Couches are set up to watch, and behind them, four gray, plastic folding tables are set up for people to eat. Priorities are clear, because the buffet spread gets the two good wooden tables. The mood alternated between celebration and exhaustion. Everyone was either eating something or bringing food to share with others. Unalakleet volunteer Jeff Erickson said they started cooking a couple hours after the race officials got set up and would run “around the clock until the last one is gone.” In addition to the 100 people that might bring in food they made, throughout the course of the race about 40 people will volunteer in about three-hour shifts making sure than anyone coming in gets breakfast, no matter what time it is. About 11 p.m., race checker Kermit Ivanoff sat with a cup of coffee and said happily, “It’s only day two. I’m very tired.”
Erickson guessed that they might cook a 100 pounds of bacon and a couple thousand sourdough pancakes, a tradition started by the late Unalakleet musher and community leader Middy Johnson, who saw what other villages along the trail did when he mushed the Iditarod and wanted to do the same.
“There’s so many bakers and people who cook here more than willing to share,” Middy’s widow Aurora Johnson says. She is there with their youngest son, Siku. “One thing that Middy really, really focused on was, even locals, if they come in, feed them, even kids. They can eat all they want. Everybody. He wanted Unalakleet to be one of those checkpoints that welcomes everybody, mushers, volunteers, everybody. He started a good thing. The biggest thing was sourdough.”
She stopped to flip a pancake. Pete Kaiser walked by, and Aurora gave him a hug. “If Middy were here, he would make you a big moose burger,” she said.
Terry Paniptchuk was working the kitchen with the Johnsons and tells of the last time she cooked with Middy. He had gone home and forgotten to tell her how to mix the starter into a batter, leaving some very sour pancakes. “I had to call him and wake him up,” she laughs.
Jeff Erickson explained that Unalakleet had always had a good checkpoint full of food that people brought, but that Middy said let’s go with the sourdough. “He decided that was going to be our thing. We’ll have all this, but we’re going to do breakfast 24 hours. A lot of us were using 140-year-old starters, mine is from the Anvik Roadhouse and is supposed to be from the 1880s. Dog mushing was involved in the roadhouse, so it’s kind of a fun connection to the race.”
“When we lost him, I said, no, we can’t lose some of the good things he’s done.” He shows his t-shirt, with a picture of Middy making pancakes. “It kinda turned into a lot of us following Middy down the path of doing this. It’s funny how breakfast can taste good at any time of the day.”
At some point in the night, between Lev Shvarts and Ramey Smyth arriving in the village, a large bowl of fresh-caught crab appeared on the food table, next to the pancakes, but dwarfing the bacon.
Even at 5 a.m. on Monday morning, the checkpoint was bustling, if quiet. Three teams have just come in, which meant 30 dogs to check, paperwork to file, and pizzas to deliver. Peace On Earth owner Bret Hanson has timed it perfectly and finished his delivery as Hanna Lyrek walked in the door. His son Jonathan has been delivering pizzas ordered by fans to the mushers all day. “We’re getting orders from all over the world,” Jonathan said. Each box has a message written for the musher: “You’re inspirational,” “We’re so proud of you,” “Your wife is awesome.” Leftovers are left to the volunteers, but musher Richie Diehl has ordered the volunteers their own fresh pizzas, too.
Off-duty vets talked about their lives and jobs outside of the Iditarod as they waited. Local volunteers reminisced about the origin of the race and the slow decline of mushing in the region. It is 6:20 a.m.. People doze when they can, which isn’t as much as anyone would like. One person’s alarm goes off, and another person turns it off after a minute of no response.
A fresh loaf of bread arrives.
Anna and Kristy Berington, who arrived just before 5 a.m., load up their plates with pancakes and bacon, banana bread and orange slices, coffee and cookies shaped in a ceremonial “50,” for the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod. Asked what they like to eat on the trail, Kristy says dried mango, “but it can’t be that sugar-coated stuff,” chocolate, and smoked salmon, but they are craving fresh fruits and vegetables when they get to Nome. Their dogs, too, like a variety of things, and they sent out a variety of foods to the checkpoints. Anna’s dog Diego just plays with his salmon, and so every bag of salmon for the team has at least one piece of beef for him.
Kristy said that is a beautiful night but scraping along the ice of the trail was “deafening,” and asked this reporter several times to speak up, because she was still shook from riding steady on the brakes the last few hours into Unalakleet.
Paige Drobny, who overnighted at the checkpoint, ate with Mats Pettersson, who arrived in the morning. They were watching the tracker closely and see a large group of mushers holed up in Shaktoolik, the next checkpoint. Pettersson said that if nobody is leaving, it doesn’t make sense to leave yet. Drobny agreed and got a bit more sleep. All five of the mushers at the checkpoint at this time, and most who have come through, are in various states of comfortable undress, shedding snow bibs and parkas for underlayers of sweatpants and wool socks.
As the darkness receded, those asleep on the couches began to stir. Jeff Erickson is replaced by his sister Heidi, who knits, waiting for Martin Massicotte to arrive to feed him sourdough pancakes and bacon. The COVID tests for the Iditarod crew and vets are ready, the flights to other checkpoints are being sorted, and the griddle is hot.
Another day at Checkpoint Unalakleet dawns.