Iditarod 44 represented all that is surprising and unpredictable about Alaska, as well as all that is gritty and indomitable about the human spirit.
Dallas Seavey, 28, at one time the youngest musher to win the Iditarod (2012), became the youngest to win three consecutive titles (2016, 2015, 2014) when he crossed the finish line in Nome at 2:20 a.m. March 15.
Following Seavey in second place was his father, two-time champion Mitch (2013, 2004), who crossed the finish line 45 minutes later. It’s the second time the father has placed second to the son. It’s the fifth consecutive year that the title has gone to a Seavey.
But fans will equally remember Aliy Zirkle’s third-place finish – her fifth consecutive top-5 finish – after a harrowing nighttime encounter on the trail with a snowmobile in which one of her dogs was injured. The snowmobile was driven by a Nulato man who was allegedly drunk at the time.
Zirkle and the rest of her team recovered enough emotionally from the incident to finish the race. Jeff King and team later had an encounter with the same snowmobile, which struck and killed one of his dogs and injured two others. King, a four-time Iditarod champion, and team finished ninth – King’s 20th career top-10 finish.
Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik, of Bethel capped a great season – he earlier won his second consecutive Kuskokwim 300 – by placing fifth, arriving in Nome two minutes after fourth-place finisher Wade Marrs. It’s Kaiser’s second fifth-place finish and his third top-10 finish in seven Iditarods.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Mo I Rana, Norway, placed sixth – his fourth top-10 Iditarod finish in as many races.
Fourth-year Iditarod competitor Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, finished 12th, his career best.
John Baker, Inupiaq, the last champion before the Age of Seavey, finished 17th, arriving in Nome to traditional drumming, song and dance.
Rookie Lars Monsen, Sami, finished 29th.
Another memorable performance: Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, of Akiak (eighth, 2012), skipped the 2015 Iditarod to train for this year’s race. But Akiak is on the front lines of global warming – a large chunk of his father’s property sloughed off into the Kuskokwim River, the permafrost having melted – and it was hard to find suitable places to train because of lack of snow. As the sun set in Nome on March 15, Williams and team (he was down to six dogs, from 16), were five checkpoints back, in Shaktoolik, setting their sights on just finishing the race. They finished 48th, crossing the finish line at 5:15 p.m. March 17.
“The eyes of the world every first Saturday and Sunday in March are on [the Iditarod] because of what could be – the great unknown this trail has to offer all of these mushers, both men and women, over 80 teams this year,” Iditarod commentator Greg Heister said on Iditarod Insider. “In the Alaska Range, the creek and river crossings [were] just a part of what we saw.”
Fellow commentator Bruce Lee added, “Alaska always throws something at the musher. That’s part of the intrigue. Whether windstorms or whatever – water, lack of snow – that’s just part of the Iditarod.”
Lee recalled that at Rainy Pass, mushers and dogs had to cross flowing creeks, exposed because of melted ice. Most mushers and dogs arrived at the Rohn checkpoint with wet gear and in wet clothes. “Then, on the other side of the Alaska Range, they were running on dirt for 20 to 30 miles,” Lee recalled.
Twelve mushers scratched this year because of personal injury, illness or out of concern for their dogs. Veteran musher Dee Dee Jonrowe’s team was spooked by a bison. Brent Sass and his team were first to reach Unalakleet (mile 710) and in third at White Mountain (mile 898), where mushers and dogs take a mandatory eight-hour rest before heading on to Safety and Nome. But his dogs were lethargic when it was time to leave White Mountain so he returned to the checkpoint to give his dogs extra rest. They reached Nome in 20th place.
Back to the Age of Seavey.
A lot of history was made when Dallas Seavey crossed the finish line. He and his team accomplished the feat in 8 days 11 hours 20 minutes 6 seconds, setting a new race record. He held the earlier record of 8 days 13 hours 4 minutes 19 seconds.
Barely 29, he’s the youngest musher to win four Iditarods. He’s one of six mushers in the race’s 44 years to win four Iditarods. If he wins in 2017, he will tie Lance Mackey (2010, 2009, 2008, 2007) for most consecutive wins, and tie Rick Swenson (1991, 1982, 1981, 1979, 1977) for most wins.
“He’s got a run like this going, he’s got a well-managed kennel,” Lee said on Iditarod Insider. “He’s liable to go for No. 5 and get it pretty quick. And that’s been the goal [and] dream of a lot of four-time champions.”
Seavey was ill for most of the race. Combine that with the sleep deprivation that comes with the race and his performance is even more remarkable. He was focused the entire way. He studies the stats. He went into the race knowing “the best places to stop and take a little break to get to the best point to get into Nome ahead of the [competition],” Lee said.
AP Photo/Mark Thiessen
Dallas Seavey talks to officials after finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Nome, Alaska. Seavey won his third straight Iditarod, for his fourth overall title in the last five years.
What sets Seavey apart? “He grew up in a mushing family,” Lee said. “When he was learning words, the first words were conversations about dog mushing from his grandfather, who ran the first Iditarod, and his dad. It’s just that a generational thing, learning from building blocks with the family and just being around mushing and understanding dogs. It’s just part of his genetics.”
Seavey takes home $75,000 and a Ram 1500 4x4 pickup truck valued at $40,000. His father receives $62,775. Zirkle receives $57,750. The amount of each prize descends to 30th place. All mushers from 31st to last place receive $1,049 – representing the 1,000 miles of the race and Alaska’s status as the 49th state.
Dallas Seavey also received the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award, presented to the first musher into McGrath. Seavey received an original “Spirit Mask” specially created by Bristol Bay artist Orville Lind, and $500 credit on PenAir toward travel or freight shipments.
The GCI Dorothy G Page Halfway Award is presented to the first musher to arrive in Cripple. The musher – again, Dallas Seavey – receives a trophy and $3,000 in gold nuggets.
The Millennium Alaskan Hotel First Musher to the Yukon Award is presented to the first musher to arrive in Ruby. This year’s recipient, Jeff King, received a five-course gourmet dinner and $3,500.
The Bristol Bay Native Corporation Fish First Award is presented to the first musher into Galena. This year’s recipient, Aliy Zirkle, receives a check for $2,000 and 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon.
The Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award is presented to the first musher to the “Gold Coast” community of Unalakleet. This year’s recipient, Brent Sass, receives a trophy and $3,500 worth of gold nuggets.
Multiple other awards will be announced at this year’s awards banquet in Nome.
For complete standings and times for all finishers, go to Iditarod.com.