Jake Berkowitz

A dog team charges down the Iditarod Trail on Sunday under the watchful eye of musher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake. In four previous Iditarod, Berkowitz's best finish was eighth in 2013. He'll have to wait for another year to try and improve upon that. On Tuesday, Berkowitz had to scratch from this year's race due to his sled being damaged beyond repair on the trail between Rohn and Nikolai.

WASILLA — Since Sunday’s official Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race restart in Willow, the 42nd running of the 1,049-mile trek to Nome has seen 13 mushers scratch. Nearly all withdrew because either the mushers, or their sleds, were too beat up to continue.

Hard-packed and dangerous trail conditions between Rohn and Nikolai have turned what has historically been the toughest stretch of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race into a brick wall for many of the race’s mushers, including longtime veterans. Of the 13 teams to scratch so far, 12 — including nine on Tuesday alone — said either physical injuries or broken sleds due to the trail conditions knocked them out, according to official Iditarod reports.

“It’s a rough trail through there,” Iditarod Trail Committee Executive Director Stan Hooley said Wednesday from McGrath. “We knew that stretch between Rohn and Nikolai was going to be very difficult, but things thawing last week then refreezing again, … it just (exacerbated the situation). The same thing with Dalzell Gorge.”

That the trail has been hard-packed and dangerous has been a frustration for Iditarod officials, Hooley said. That’s because with only a few days before the restart, volunteers, crews and specialized construction equipment worked for a week refurbishing about 540 miles of trail, including that stretch between Rohn and Nikolai, and the notorious Dalzell Gorge. The trail was in great shape, Hooley said, then in the days right before the restart, the weather warmed and freezing rain destroyed much of that work. A snowmachine excursion that had machines running up the gorge also packed down that trail, he said.

“I’m just disappointed that this curveball got tossed our way,” Hooley said. “There was some traffic from a tour group with novice snowmachiners who traveled down Hells Gate and up the Dalzell Gorge and collapsed the trail.”

Although the dogs seem to be handling the hard trail conditions OK, the same can’t be said for many of the mushers and their sleds, Hooley said.

“We’ve had some pretty significant injuries to mushers,” he said. “My understanding is the dogs have managed to get this far relatively unscathed. … But that’s true every year (with trail conditions). Certainly that is the most challenging section of trail every year, it’s just not usually as hard as it is this year.”

Some of those injuries include Linwood Fiedler of Willow, who scratched Tuesday in Rohn, citing “physical injury from driving the Dalzell Gorge,” according to a press release announcing the development. Longtime race veteran DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow also scratched Tuesday in Rohn, saying she was “beat up physically in the Dalzell Gorge.”

While Hooley calls the unsafe conditions a “curveball” for Iditarod officials, it’s a scenario longtime Iditarod veteran Jonrowe warned officials about prior to the race. After having to scratch from this year’s race — her 32nd Iditarod — the Willow musher said she loves her sport and its premiere event, but is frustrated to see the number of injuries to mushers.

“I think the stats speak for themselves,” she said. “When you have two broken legs in 20 miles, that says something about the trail. Equipment breaks, and you can say this, that or something else about why equipment breaks. But you don’t have that many bodily injuries on a trail that’s safe. Well, I’m not talking ‘safe,’ I’m talking reasonable. It is the Iditarod, and that’s part of the event, it’s what we’re celebrating — that relationship between man and dog.”

Those hard-packed and icy conditions have created an unforgiving trail that’s literally beating up mushers and their sleds, Jonrowe said. She likened it to being inside a pinball machine.

“That’s the terrain out there that four-wheelers break axels on,” she said.

Also on Tuesday, Jim Lanier of Chugiak scratched at Rainy Pass with an injured leg, while Scott Janssen of Anchorage scratched the same day between Rohn and Nikolai with a severely injured leg. He reported the injury happened while he was stopped and trying to regain control of a loose dog. Because weather conditions in that area had grounded the Iditarod Air Force, the Air National Guard helped transport Janssen back to Anchorage, the Iditarod reports.

The injuries on Tuesday continued to mount when at 6:40 p.m., Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Canada, was withdrawn from the race because she said she had an undisclosed injury “deemed too significant to allow safe continuation of the race.” Less than an hour later at 7:06 p.m., Cindy Abbott of Irvine, Calif., suffered a shoulder strain and scratched out of concern for her continued ability to safely care for her dogs.

Although he didn’t report any injuries to himself, veteran musher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake scratched Tuesday after his sled was damaged beyond repair while traveling between Rohn and Nikolai. That trail experience was echoed by musher Ellen Halverson of Wasilla, who scratched at 12:55 a.m., Wednesday in Rohn. She said she also had a severely damaged sled and she said the decision also was partly based on “an abundance of caution due to the experiences of the teams ahead of me.” Also on Wednesday, Iditarod rookie Lev Shvarts of Willow had to scratch because of sled damage done during his run between Rohn and Nikolai.

Although the dangerous trail conditions the Iditarod Trail Committee had hoped to avoid by having the trails groomed ahead of the restart returned, Hooley said the race must go on.

Challenging conditions on one part of the trail or another “is really true every year,” he said. “It is the Iditarod Trail, and there are always going to be lots of challenges. … The reality of it is there is always going to be sections of the trail that are going to be challenging.”

Still, that doesn’t discount the number of injuries to mushers suffered so far in this year’s 42nd running of The Last Great Race, Hooley said.

“It is frustrating,” he said, adding that the outlook was good until that last-minute spurt of warm weather. “Had we known that the trail would have deteriorated after the repair work was done — but there’s no way to know that.”

At that point, Hooley said, the course had been set and couldn’t be rerouted for a Fairbanks restart that quickly.

“It’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around,” he said. “If you make that decision too late, you can go miles out of your way trying to make that turn.”

The decision to move the restart to Fairbanks should have been made earlier, Jonrowe said. She said she warned the Iditarod Trail Committee about the trail conditions, but said she was just one voice among many. Jonrowe also said she believes the committee doesn’t deserve to be blasted with criticism from those with 20/20 hindsight.

“You have to give the board some slack, because they’re not professional dog racers,” she said. “Everybody, I believe, had in their minds the best interests of the event, but they weren’t working with all the pieces of the puzzle. … I’m not interested in trashing my life’s work. The thing I’m having trouble with is I saw this. This is foresight, not hindsight, for me and I brought it to the table, but not enough people saw it from my perspective. Now here we sit (with all these) scratched teams from Rohn.”

Other mushers coming forward and expressing concern over the trails may have helped fill in some of those missing pieces, she said.

“I believe the competitors shoulder some of the blame as well, because enough of us didn’t speak up,” Jonrowe said. “We had concerns, we had knowledge, we had background. I was just one, so I began to look just like a scared old lady, and that’s not the case.”

Although this year’s spate of early scratches seems like a lot, it’s still far short of the 20 scratches the race had in 2003, Hooley said. Coincidentally, that’s also the only time the restart has been moved out of Southcentral, going to Fairbanks because of a lack of snow here.

“It’s interesting that people are focused on the number of scratches, but I was taking a look back at race archives and in 2003, the year we did the river run from Fairbanks, there were 20 scratches. Right now, we’re at (12), but of course I don’t know where we’ll come out by the end.”

Contact Greg Johnson at 352-2269 or greg.johnson@frontiersman.com.

Load comments