The winter of 2017/2018 goes into the weather annals as one of the snowiest and stormiest years since early 1900s when weather data started being collected in northwestern Alaska. And it was the weather that drove much of this year’s narrative of the 44th running of The Last Great Race. For one, this year marked the first time since 2013 that mushers raced on the southern route again. Lack of snow in the Alaska Range has resulted in race starts from Fairbanks in 2015 and 2017. This year, it was neither super cold nor too warm, but it brought significant snowfall and wind, slowing down the race, as evidenced by the winner’s time: Joar Leifseth Ulsom won this year’s race in nine days and 12 hours, about 33 hours slower than last year’s record setting win notched by Mitch Seavey in eight days and three hours.
The 2018 Iditarod came to an end when the last musher, Magnus Kaltenborn and his 13 sled dogs arrived under the Burled Arch on Saturday morning at 11:13 a.m., marking a fast red lantern finish. Kaltenborn completed the race in 12 days, 20 hours and 13 minutes. He arrived in Nome as yet another snowstorm was developing, which dumped another load of snow on Nome and the region, accompanied by strong winds. It was not weather to be trifled with and one could almost hear a collective sigh that all mushers were safely off the trail and accounted for. The Bering Sea coast once again lived up to its reputation that puts fear in the most seasoned musher. A snowstorm with high winds between a feared stretch between Shaktoolik and Koyuk obliterated the trail and visibility, which cost Nicolas Petit the lead in the race. In a recent interview with Mushing Petit, who has won pretty much every race he entered this season prior to Iditarod, summarized his race saying, “The big picture is, in this years’ Iditarod, it was a magic carpet ride, my dogs were performing so well, I couldn’t be any happier. But a wrong turn is a wrong turn.” So what happened?
Petit was the first to arrive to the halfway point at Iditarod, and a race up the snowy Yukon developed between him, Ulsom and Mitch Seavey. Petit seemed to be in command of the race, arrived with a big team of 13 dogs first in Unalakleet on the coast. He left Shaktoolik with 11 dogs around 1 a.m. with the plan to rest at a shelter cabin nearby. So he did. But after his rest there, he took the wrong turn. “It’s a mistake I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said, adding that he needs to see it with a sense of humor. There were few trail markers, some on the right, some on the left, he didn’t realize it was Iditarod and Iron Dog markers that marked the trail over the sea ice. He followed the trail and soon didn’t see any trail markers but a distinct snowmachine trail, which veered off to the right, towards the coast. At the time, a significant ground storm was obliterating what was left of the trail. “Considering that they told us before the race that there was open water, veering to the right didn’t seem that bad,” he said. On his GPS he could tell where the overland trail was, he went there but couldn’t find any trail, so he doubled back and finally made out a trail marker way in the distance. He followed that direction and then saw a dog bootie and dog poop on the ground, confirming that he’s on the right trail. “I knew it was Joar, I knew I was in second place and I also knew I was on the right trail now,” Petit said.
Ulsom managed to find the trail and arrived in Koyuk first, which allowed him to take command of the lead. Getting into Shaktoolik it’s always blowing and cold, said Ulsom. “Right when I was leaving it started snowing and 20 mph wind, it was hard to see and follow the trail, you had to go from marker to marker,” he said. “Going over the sea ice feels like you’re standing still and you see the lights of Koyuk for a long, long time.” Ulsom said that when he found himself with a good lead in Koyuk, the dogs were just rolling and he had a good feeling about winning the race.
Petit arrived an hour after Ulsom in Koyuk and three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey arrived more than three hours after Ulsom.
Ultimately, Petit and Seavey could not catch the Norwegian, who finished the race in the early morning hours on Wednesday, March 14 at 3 a.m. in Nome. A large crowd awaited the 31-year-old when he set the hook under the burled arch. Family and friends greeted the new champion with hugs and vigorous waving of the Norwegian flag.
Perfect temperatures of 10°F and a calm 8 mph north wind ushered the musher and his eight dogs into Nome. As they came up the ramp the crowd cheered on the new champion, who smiled and was visibly overcome with emotions.
When asked how if feels to have won this race, Ulsom answered, “It’s pretty unreal that we pulled it off. It’s… I don’t know what to say.”
Ulsom said winning the Iditarod had been a dream of his for years since he saw fellow Norwegian and his idol Robert Sørlie win the race in 2003 and 2005.
After checker John Handeland checked the mandatory gear and his vet book, Ulsom was officially off the trail shortly after 3 a.m.
He had dropped two dogs in Safety and mushed the last 22 miles to Nome in three hours and seven minutes. He was led into under the burled arch by lead dogs Russeren and Olive. Russeren would receive the Golden Harness award.
Ulsom is the Iditarod’s third international champion and also holds the record as the fastest rookie to ever finish the race. Ulsom has finished in the top seven in each of his previous five Iditarod races.
After accepting the key to a new truck as part of the championship prize, he said this was most welcome as recently two tires fell off his dog truck at home and that it took three tow trucks to take the truck to the shop. “So yes, this truck comes at a good time,” he said.
Describing the trail conditions, he said, “ It was a slow trail, a soft trail and wind it was just every leg was more challenging than the other leg.”
Coming across the sea ice to Nome, Ulsom said he was one happy man and one happy dog team. When asked by a reporter if he had stopped and “had a moment with the dogs”, Ulsom answered, “We had a moment the whole race, trust me. They were fantastic.”
Nicolas Petit finished two hours and 15 minutes after Ulsom with 10 dogs in harness. He said it’s hard to be unhappy with the season he and his dog team had. “Winning all these races, not barely but with a good lead, and then doing the Iditarod and being in front and leading the whole race a long time, you know, I’m really proud of these dogs that are now just coming of age,” Petit said.
Mitch Seavey arrived in Nome in third position, five hours and 11 minutes after Ulsom, with nine dogs in harness. Asked how he felt that for the first time since 2012 the winner is not a Seavey, he responded, “I think it's fine. I feel really actually pretty good about it. You know, Dallas and I have done real well in the previous many races and there have been some similarities in the trail over those years and we’ve perfected a method that allowed us to go real fast, including, of course carrying dogs and things like that. And, you know, prior to those many years, I always, I always enjoyed having slower, softer trail, which is what we had this year. But we've adapted to hard, fast trails and being from south central Alaska.” He said that the deeper, slower and soft trail has resulted in a few injuries forcing him to drop a few dogs early in the race, including Pilot, last year’s Golden Harness winner and key dog in his team.
“I then was being a little bit more conservative on the coast so that I could accomplish what is the most important thing to me of all of that is the finished with a nice happy, healthy team and, and I am very proud of that accomplishment of this year and in fact had dogs barking, literally barking in the finishing chute,” Seavey said. “That made me feel real good. So third place is fine with me.”
Seavey is looking back at lifetime of mushing. He said in his opinion, a combination of great genetics that make up his kennel, a well-thought out nutritional program, and lately, year-round training are major components of his success. He also applies essential oils to his dogs. “Our use of Young Living Essential Oils products is one of the keys to our success these past few years and, I believe, instrumental in finishing with a strong, healthy and happy dog team,” he said.
Weather cooperated for the most part on Wednesday and Thursday seeing mushers arrive in Nome one after the other. Altogether 52 of the 67 who started made it to the finish line.
But the notoriously dangerous stretch of trail known as the “Blowhole” between Topkok and the Bonanza bridge lived up to its reputation and wreaked havoc with 77-year-old Jim Lanier and his team.
The GPS tracker on Lanier’s sled showed that his team veered off the trail, which leads over a driftwood-studded sandbar about 40 miles away from Nome. The team was heading for the sea ice. Lanier managed to turn them around but could not proceed due to exhaustion and the sled being stuck on driftwood. All the while, a ground storm raged through the blowhole, resulting in poor visibility. So Lanier huddled with his dogs in the cold darkness. “Mushin’ mortician” Scott Janssen found Lanier, stopped his team and tended to Lanier. With hypothermia setting in, the two tried to keep each other warm. Then three fat tire bikers with the Iditarod Trail Invitational race came by and Scott Janssen asked them to find his satellite phone to call his wife and for help. One of the bikers found the phone in the sled bag and dialed the numbers since Janssen’s hands too cold to push the buttons. The bikers sent a spot message to alert the authorities and send for help.
Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said that the ITC received notification on Friday morning, 7 a.m. “A search and rescue team was immediately notified and then a plan was put in place to safely extract both dog teams and both mushers.” Nome Search and Rescue was notified and went out to help the men. Race marshal Mark Nordman also asked musher Jessie Royer, who had finished her race and was at Safety by snowmachine, to drive out and do a welfare check on the two.
Mike Owens, who professionally works with Nome medical emergency services, is also a musher, Iditarod finisher and ITC board member. He assisted in the rescue along with a group of Nome SAR EMTs. While Lanier and Janssen were found and snowmachined to Safety, from where they were flown by helicopter to Nome, Owens and his fellow EMTs found the two dog teams and hitched them all into one big 24-dog team. Owens mushed the dogs to Farley’s camp from where they were trucked to the dog lot in Nome. Asked how bad the winds have been at the blowhole, he said, “Oh, it was ugly.”
This was almost Janssen’s third finish in six attempts to run the Iditarod.
For the selfless act of sticking with his friend and fellow musher, so close to the finish line, Janssen received the coveted Sportsmanship Award.
The news of a dog death from Katherine Keith’s team cast a shadow over the joyous atmosphere at the finish line. The dog named Blondie died in Unalakleet. A veterinary pathologist completed a gross necropsy on the five-year-old male dog and determined that the cause of death was consistent with aspiration pneumonia. Head veterinarian Stu Nelson explained that this type of pneumonia occurs when stomach content is burped up and is inhaled into the lungs.
There will be further tests done. Also last year, at the same checkpoint, one of Keith’s dogs died.
As the banquet went underway, another snow and windstorm gathered strength and pummeled Nome and the region on Monday. Luckily all mushers were off the trail, including two that were withdrawn from the race. Race marshal Mark Nordman withdrew Steve Watkins and Tara Cicatello from the race in Unalakleet, citing the competitive rule.
At his speech, Seavey touched on the philosophical aspect of mushing and summarized the rewards of hardship endured. “No matter what sort of things you go through what I’ve learned over the years, what’s come home more and more is the lesson these crazy dogs have been trying to teach me for decades. The dogs we associate with are so capable, and so understanding, so constant and dependable. They don’t worry about yesterday or last year. They don’t hold jealousies, they don’t carry forward fears, they just exist in the moment. They’re not really worried about tomorrow, they’re not apprehensive about the next race, they’re just happy right now. That’s a lesson I’d like to share with you so it resonates that right now what we have and right now we should enjoy and relish our lives.”