Nome, AK - This year’s Iditarod is not only record-breaking, it may have broken some mushers as well. The 42 annual race will not soon be forgotten. It’s being called on of the toughest in the race’s history.
There isn’t a veteran Iditarod musher who doesn’t agree this year’s was one of the toughest in the race’s 42 year history. Aliy Zirkle is a 14-time finisher. This year, she says the challenges between Anchorage and Nome were endless. “Everyday has been harder than the next day, every day has been harder.” Early on, the Happy River Steps cracked sleds, snapped gang lines and left mushers bruised. The run through the Dalzell Gorge and over the Farewell Burn forced a dozen teams to scratch in a single day. Teams faced long stretches of snow free trail in the Alaska Range, between Kaltag and Unalakleet and along the Bering Sea Coast. But it was a fierce, arctic wind that really shook Aily Zirkle on her final run to Nome. “That was the most challenging couple of hours of my life dog mushing and that was very touch-and-go as far as whether I was going to make it to safety or not with my dog team,” she says.
Safety is the last checkpoint on the trail. The irony of its name isn’t lost on Zirkle. She says hurricane-force winds could have easily blown her petite sled dogs straight into the inky, roiling waters of the Bering Sea.
“For some reason they keep saying there’s no snow out here,"says Zirkle, "but then there was a ground blizzard and you couldn’t see, so there’s snow somewhere. If a person were to stop out there, that was a life or death thing there.”
At least two mushers did stop as the wind howled. Jeff King’s dog team got stuck for more than two hours just outside the last checkpoint on the trail. Hugh Neff’s team hunkered down overnight on thick glare ice outside White Mountain. Eventually, both scratched from the race. Mitch Seavey, who finished third and won last year, half-joked that he’d have to write a book about how he got his dog team down the trail.
“There’s a thousand things that happen, you know," say Seavey. "One particular instance, we were trying to cross a sloping section of glare ice and the wind was blowing so hard from our right that one couldn’t stand up on a normal day, much less on glare ice and caught the sled dragged the entire team 100 yards backwards.”
Seavey’s son Dallas won this year, claiming a second championship. It’s likely the two will return to defend what’s becoming something of a family tradition. But things are different for Martin Buser. He’s run the race 31 times, more than any other musher. His arrival in Nome was extremely emotional. After a tearful greeting with his lead dogs at the finish line, Buser hugged his wife Kathy for a long time. “You never have to do this again if you don’t want to,” she told a crying Buser.
Buser is disappointed in his performance as a musher. He says he doesn’t believe he did well by his dogs.
“I’ve been out of control for so long. I can’t balance, I can’t do anything. I can’t steer a sled, I keep wrecking and falling. I can’t do the dogs justice, that’s what so bad.” Despite his long-lived mushing career, it’s unclear if Buser will come back to the race. “I never say ‘never.’ You don’t get me to fall in that little trap. I’m the only one that has never said ‘never,’ that way I don’t need to come back.”
The same question came up for another long-time veterans. More than once, Sonny Lindner has commented about retiring from the sport, but this year, he says it’s official. “Well I started in ’78, so that should be enough,” says Lindner. He has finished the race 21 times. He says this year’s run was reminiscent of them all. “Well, it had little part of all of them. The bad parts, I think,” he laughs.
With that, Lindner climbed on the back of his sled, called to his dogs and took off out of the finish chute for what very well be the last time in a career that spans nearly as many decades as the race itself.