BIG LAKE — This year’s Iron Dog started a little rough for organizers after a couple of ice fishing holes flooded the starting area and some parking areas the week before Sunday’s start. A few days of warm weather and thin ice also worried Mat-Su Borough officials. But by race time, a new starting chute had been plowed out, temperatures dropped enough to freeze most of the overflow and 31 racers roared down the lake on their way to the finish line 2,000 miles of trail away.
By 3 p.m., Sunday, eight teams had made it through the Steps to Puntilla Lake and departed for the Rohn Roadhouse. By Monday afternoon, more than half the field was through McGrath and headed for Poorman.
The team of Tyler Aklestad and Aaron Loyer set a blazing pace through the first 100 miles, but was forced to take a six-hour layover at the Puntilla Lake checkpoint after Loyer went into a creek, and had moved back into fifth place.
At least eight of the 30 teams still on trail had declared some type of layover by mid-afternoon Monday. Teams are required to take up to four layovers on the northbound route of the race. Three of those will be fixed at eight hours. But new for 2012 is the addition of the six-hour layover. The new six-hour layover can be used by itself or declared in combination with a mandatory eight-hour stop.
Two 10-hour layovers are required on the southbound route. The first has to be taken at Koyuk, Unalakleet or Kaltag, and the second at Galena or Ruby.
This year’s trail conditions and weather seem to be helping set a fast pace. Iron Dog race marshal Chris Graeber said the trail looks great.
“This colder weather right now is firming it up,” Graeber said Sunday morning from pit row on Big Lake. “I think it’s going to be very fast. It’s pretty bumpy by the Finger Lake area. There is a lot of snow up there, but the Steps look good and the Gorge looks good.”
The Steps are a series of three nearly vertical drops between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake. The area has a reputation as a trouble spot, especially in bad weather, but unlike the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that chooses to bypass that portion of the trail, Iron Dog racers don’t.
“We are making them take the Steps this year,” Graeber said. “We are not taking the bypass trail at all. A lot of the racers said the Steps are a part of this race and they want to keep them.”
The checkers have also broke trail from Poorman through to Ruby and Tokotna, which is always a pretty desolate stretch, Graeber said.
Weather can win or lose the race. For last year’s fifth-place team of Andrew Zwink and Ryan Sottosanti, deep snow factored into their overall placing.
“Last year we pushed a little too hard the first two days and we were breaking trail for everybody else,” Zwink said. “That kind of took us out of contention honestly.”
Weather last year also took out Elaine Jackson.
“Last year was pretty disappointing. I felt like I got cheated a little bit,” the 32-year-old said. “We can’t do anything about the weather and that’s what hit us last year.”
Factoring weather and trail conditions into race strategy is hard because it is always changing. Four-time champion Todd Palin, who is again partnered with Soldotna’s Scott Davis, has had the chance to see some of the first part of the trail during training runs. Training has been good for the Palin/Davis team.
“It’s been cold and the snow conditions up the Yetna River and Shell has just been unbelievable a lot of snow,” Palin said. “When you go out and put the miles in and you go up the Yetna River, it’s amazing how it all changes week by week. We’ll just take it as it comes.”
For some Iron Dog racers, new partners and keeping their machines in one piece is the strategy. For veteran racer Tyson Johnson, who last year with partner Tyler Aklestad was knocked out of the race due to mechanical issues, hopes this year his luck will change. Johnson and his new partner, rookie Chad Gueco, are looking at a steady, safe pace.
“Tyson has been teaching me a good Iron Dog pace,” Gueco said. “We’re just going to stay steady at a good, consistent pace and just try to stay clean.”
Gueco realizes equipment is half the battle.
“The machines have to live to the end of this, so when we have to slow down we have to slow down, and when there is time to make up and we can go fast we will try to make up that time,” he said.
For the Iron Dog team of Race Price and Eric Watson, equipment issues hurt them early on. They scratched Sunday due to mechanical problems and the No. 20 team of Jana Peterson-Pevan and Carl Swenson had to head back to the start for repairs before ever getting off the ice of Big Lake.
Ray Wells and Norman Sheldon also have scratched after they and their sleds took a beating as they climbed into the Alaska Range Sunday night. The more than 50 snowmachines tearing up the trail before them took a toll on man and machine, forcing them to limp into Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake.
As of press time Monday, the 2009 championship team of Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad had made it to Kaltag and were taking an eight-hour-layover. The team of Mike Morgan and 2011 winner Chris Olds were in Galena and taking their eight-hour layover. Also in Galena on a layover were Zwink and Sottosanti, and Tyler Huntington and James West.
The fast team of Aklestad and Loyer was resting in Ruby for eight hours, along with Palin and Davis.