Kristy was reported in 34th place and Anna in 36th upon their departure from Rohn. Each twin pulled out with 13 dogs in harness. Dogs that are dropped at these early checkpoints are flown back to Anchorage. Aaron, who works with Anna at Scott Janssen's kennel, is picking up the twins' returned dogs and is this year's Dropped Dog Correspondent. Recall each twin dropped one dog each in Finger Lake. I have since found out Anna dropped Straight due to a sore right shoulder and Kristy dropped Jasmine due to a sore right back leg. Both dogs are now comfortably recovering at the kennel in Knik, AK. They also dropped one dog each at the checkpoints of Rainy Pass and Rohn. Given this picture and caption I found on the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) website, it wouldn't surprise me to learn Precious was dropped by Anna in Rainy Pass...
Speaking of trail conditions, Good Grief Charlie Brown! The trail in many places is just that ~ brown and almost completely devoid of snow in some sections. We knew from early reports that the first 300 miles or so was hurting for snow, but I didn't comprehend the extent of it until I started digging through the pictures on various sites online.
Take the Happy River steps between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass for example. Followers of the race will recall that last year was also on the warm side by Iditarod standards. But compare these two photos of the same section of the steps year over year. They speak for themselves.
Musher accounts of the steps this year really vary. I was thrilled to find this quote from Kristy in an article on adn.com: "Made it!" shouted Kristy Berington, once she was safe on the flat ground. "Better than last year. They really did a good job on the third step." Other mushers didn't share those sentiments (click on the adn.com link above to read all about it).
Even with the steps behind them, Anna and Kristy will have covered some wicked trail to get where they are now. After Rainy Pass, they will have passed through the Dalzell Gorge before reaching Rohn. That section of trail is a twisting, turning series of switchbacks deep in a valley. In "normal" years, avalanche-like conditions would have buried the trees to their tips in upwards of 20 feet of snow. This year, there's hardly any snow there at all. Mushers won't even be able to see their lead dogs as they dodge hard lefts and rights among the trees and boulders. Before the race, Anna summed it up in one word: Scary.
The proverbial fun will only have continued when they pulled out of Rohn. The 75 miles between Rohn and Nikolai take the twins through the Buffalo Tunnels, so named for the herds of wild bison that wander this area, as well as the Farewell Burn ~ an area still recovering from Alaska's largest forest fire in 1978. The buffalo themselves are very unlikely to cause any issues for mushers, but the rough terrain completely devoid of snow this year is a different story. Mushers running ahead of the twins this year are pulling into Nikolai with all sorts of tales of whoa, from sprained ankles and knees, bleeding head wounds from collisions with trees, busted up sleds, and trail-weary dogs with booties they've worn clean through on the rough terrain. Believe it or not, but dust was a major concern on this section, and fortunately the twins were counseled by veteran Paul Gebhardt to pack a dust mask or bandana to avoid breathing in all the dust their dogs were bound to kick up behind them. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to see their GPS trackers quickly closing in on Nikolai as I write this.
Kristy and Anna will also breath a big sigh of relief upon reaching Nikolai (race mile 263). Some of the worst sections of trail will finally be behind them, and Nikolai is one of their favorite checkpoints for that very reason. They're also likely to take a longer rest here, not only because the dogs will certainly have earned it, but also because this spot offers a decent meal like soup or a fresh sandwich as well as access to the village's community hall where they often lay out mats for the mushers to take a quick nap on. As the twins will have slept little, if at all, at this point in the race, they'll welcome even an hour or two of shut eye.
As final testament to the challenges of the race thus far, I see that 6 more mushers have scratched from the race, bringing the total to 7 scratches and leaving 62 teams on the trail. Among them was DeeDee Jonrowe, a veteran of 29 Iditarods. I think I can speak for all fans when I wish each team safe and swift travels to their home kennels. Meanwhile, Aily Zirkle has taken the lead and recently pulled into Takotna (race mile 329) while the 6 mushers hot on her trail are either in or already checked out of McGrath. Our friend Paul Gebhardt is also holding in the top 10 and already reported out of Nikolai himself.