Teams have pretty much been snowed on throughout their journey, but it will have varied considerably. It has snowed at great accumulation rates, like early in the race, and it's come down more gently like in some of the pictures we've seen. Weather reports have shown periods of very little wind, but there were trail reports of massive, blow-your-sled-sideways gusts going over the Pass, and thus snow-blown trail. Mushers have seen everything from -50F overnight in the interior, which would give a dry, crystalline snow, to recent reports approaching +30F where the snow is wet, clumpy, sometimes mixed with sleet. There is a reason why languages born in cold places inevitably have multiple words for "snow"!
Dogs and sleds move differently in different snow and trail conditions. The twins will be swapping out their sled runner plastic regularly to suit the changes, as slightly different plastics move better in different conditions. How well the sled glides along the trail obviously impacts how hard the dogs need to pull, how fast they are willing and able to run, and how much pedaling or ski-poling the twins feel the need to do to help keep things moving along. As it gets warmer, and wetter, dog jackets may come off, booties swapped out more, additional powders applied to paws to keep them healthy. Anna and Kristy will also modify what they're feeding the dogs to the conditions as much as their shipped-out supplies will allow, working in fattier foods like chicken when it's really cold or focusing on lean, high protein sources like salmon as it warms up.
The dogs really do prefer it on the cold side, and that is a good segue into an update on this year's teams on the trail. We have two more scratches in the race, bringing the total to six. Martin Massicotte was the first rookie to scratch this year, and he did so citing concern for his dog team directly related to warming temperatures. Veteran Linwood Fiedler also withdrew from the contest, opting to do so in the best interests of his dogs but not elaborating further. Safe and swift travels to you both. This leaves us with 51 teams still working their way to Nome.
I also read about a close call for musher Matt Failor and one of his dogs, Cool Cat. After resting in Takotna, Cool Cat wasn't feeling right and then Failor and vets noticed her stomach was distended. Turns out her stomach was twisted, a severe condition requiring immediate treatment. Thanks to quick actions by a vet on scene and rapid transport to Anchorage, Cool Cat got the care she needed and is recovering well. You can read more in this KTVA.com article.
I think it is important to note this can happen to any dog and isn't believed to be related to Cool Cat's participation in the Iditarod. And my family has direct experience in support of that. Many of you may have read about the twins' early foray into mushing involving the family Border Collie and Great Pyrenees. Well, there was another Great Pyrenees when Kristy and Anna were very young named Benjamin, or Benny for short. Long story short, his life ended earlier than it should have when his stomach twisted and we were unable to get him to the vet in time to be saved. It was through no neglect on my family's part, anything he ate or any activity he participated in. Just a tragic, sad unexplained medical anomaly. I'm sure glad Cool Cat's story had a happier ending!
It will be a while yet before this year's Iditarod has a happy ending at the finish line in Nome. Thomas Waerner is currently in the lead, and GPS has him just over 710 miles along the trail and closing in on Unalakleet. There are several teams behind him, and they all appear to be resting trailside at mile 676, which I believe is the location of the tripod shelter cabin and a common place to rest on this stretch. The top 21 teams are all at least into Kaltag, and the vast majority of mushers have also now satisfied their 8hr rest requirement. Rookie Quince Mountain continues to press along at the back of the pack and is around mile 448, taking the total lead/lag spread in the field to just over 260 miles.
And where is Seeing Double? They've made it all the way to Nulato, mile 582, and continue to run in the middle of the pack. They spent 7 1/2 hours on the 50 miles from Ruby to Galena, where we did see them declare and take their 8hr rest. Much to my surprise, Anna turned on her phone, actually had a bit of reception, and - since it's now allowed by race rules - I got a much welcome call as they were getting ready to leave Galena!
We didn't talk long, and I didn't spend any of that precious time updating them on competitors. I wanted to hear firsthand how they were doing, how the dogs were, and how things had been so far. The answers to those questions, in a nutshell, were: good but a little frustrated at times; great! albeit not inclined to set any land-speed records; and... challenging! Some of the frustration stemmed from all the changes made to original, well-laid plans. The dogs still with them on the trail are doing really well, but it sounded like they were happily in traveling mode, not racing mode. They were also in the process of returning one more dog each, and while not for anything serious, given their bond with each dog, sending one of your teammates home for any reason has got to be a major bummer.
The additional challenges? Well, there's the fact that they had been out there for nearly six days when they called. Even with their 24 and 8 hour breaks, they won't have gotten much actual sleep. They did the math for me one time and figured they get about 45 minutes of rest/sleep for every 4 hour period during Iditarod. That works out to about 10 straight days of only "sleeping" 4 1/2 hours per day. Add the physical activity and weather conditions then subtract your typical hearty home cooked meals, and wowser. Anna confirmed the crazy winds reported around Rainy Pass and the -50F temps they saw. Kristy confirmed how far removed from anything COVID-19 they had been until it came at them out of nowhere with all the checkpoint changes.
The other thing they both alluded to was a bit of disappointment with not being higher in the ranks. After finishing 16th and 17th last year, first time in the top 20 for either twin, I think they were putting a fair amount of pressure on themselves to do as well again this year. I think we've seen that reflected quietly in some of their comments in interviews. But this pressure is not for their own sake. No, not at all. And they said as much to me during our brief chat. They're afraid they're disappointing others - fans, existing and new sponsors, family and friends.
Don't worry... I found a much gentler, more uplifting way of saying, "Don't be an idiot!!" I assured them we all just want them and the dogs to be safe and get to Nome. That we're all amazed by the fact that they're simply out there! Just keep doing the best you can, enjoy the time with the dogs and each other, try to have a bit of fun. Continue to be as strong as we all know you are, and quit worrying about disappointing anyone. Run the trail in front of you with the dogs you've got.
And that's just what they're doing. Not too long after talking to me, they pulled out of Galena just before 9:30pm Saturday evening. Kristy is now mushing 11 dogs, Anna left with 9. They spent just over 8 hours on the 37 miles to Nulato, mile 582, and should spend at least 5 hours resting here. Hopefully they were pleasantly surprised on their arrival to find unexpected access to a cabin and also water, maybe even some hot water at that. Not having to melt snow to make water to boil to feed one's team is a welcome thing. It sounds like some of the best of humanity is alive and well out there with a former Iditarod racer, his family, and the school principal all helping generously to make this a more comfortable spot for mushers and their teams.
Everything is subject to change at this point, but if well-laid plans catch up to Anna and Kristy at this point in the race, we'll see them pull out of Nulato before noon on Sunday. They'll run the 47 miles to Kaltag, stop and resupply, do anything they need to with their dogs, and head out on the daunting 85-mile stretch to Unalakleet. They'll also be saying goodbye to the Yukon River stretch when they leave Kaltag. They're not going to run the 85-miles to UNK in one go, though, but will stop 13 or so miles outside of Kaltag at Tripod Cabin. If they don't stop there, we'll see them stop somewhere trailside for an extended rest on this bit of trail, the longest section between checkpoints in the race.
Enjoy a few screen captures from the Iditarod.com Insider feature "Let it Snow in Galena", posted mid-day March 14th.