We’ve heard many stories about the harsh Alaska winters, abundant wildlife, and many other adventures from Peter, Katharine’s uncle, who lives in Nome, AK. We had a great time on our honeymoon in Alaska in the summer of 2011, but we always wanted to go back to experience the winter season, so we decided to make a trip of it! We planned for a few days in Nome and a few days in Fairbanks. Of course if you’re going to Nome in the winter/spring, you have to see the finish of the Last Great Race, the Iditarod! The 1,000+ mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from 9-15 days because of the harsh and changing weather. After 3 flights and ~18 hours of traveling we arrived in Nome on Sunday (3/9) greeted by Peter in a small 1 room airport.
Peter gave us a great tour of the small Bearing Sea costal town with a population of 3,600. While driving around the town we kept our eye open for musk ox. We found a small herd grazing on the outskirts of town. They were grazing and butting heads as we walked from our car.
When they feel threatened they gather together and stand their ground to protect their young. This of course doesn’t work too well against hunters.
This winter was unusually warm and they had gotten a lot less snow than normal. As we listened to the Iditarod reports we continued to hear about injuries due to the icy and rocky conditions on the trail and Nome was no exception. We were able to drive 25 miles east on the Nome-Council Rd along the shore to the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint, which is normally only accessible by snowcat, snow machine, or helicopter. With the mushers (dog sled racers) still a couple days away, the place was deserted.
Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint of the Iditarod
Looking Across Safety Sound
Looking Across the Bearing Sea Ice
Even though it was clear and sunny, it was nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit, and the brisk wind kept us from venturing outside the car for more than a couple minutes. As the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up, we decided it was too risky to attempt anymore trips to the Safety Roadhouse. Drifting snow could block the roads in a matter of minutes and the harsh conditions could be deadly without any means of communication.
We decided to spend Monday exploring Nome, souvenir shopping, and watching last minute construction of the snow chute to the burled arch finish line.
This pretty white snow was trucked in that day
We also took in some of the local activities such as the craft fair, snow sculpting contest, and local eateries. We also noticed as the finishers got closer, the town’s population grew with tourists, mushing support teams, and even a couple (low profile) celebrities including Ariel Tweto from Flying Wild Alaska and Wipeout.
We downloaded the Iditrod GPS app on our iPad to monitor the mushers progress from the checkpoints Elim, White Mountain, and Safety, as well as the final leg on the way to Nome. There’s a mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain and then it’s just 77 miles to Nome. Since they were traveling at ~7 mph, we figured once they left White Mountain it would be another 11 hours before they reached the finish line in Nome. So we followed the top three racers over the next 24 hours:
- Jeff King, 4-time Iditarod winner
- Aliy Zirkle, Runner-up last two years, our favorite
- Dallas Seavey, Last years champ
The following is our account of the Iditarod drama leading to the finish…
Monday 3:00 PM
Jeff King leaves White Mountain rested with a 1 hour lead on Aliy. It seems like another 2nd place finish for Aliy as we watch her GPS marker leave White Mountain and both Jeff and Aliy progress toward Safety with a consistent gap. They have 77 miles to go and are expected in Nome around 2am. Dallas is still under the mandatory 8 hour layover and can’t leave for another 3 hours. Peter warns us that it’s still anyone’s race, but everyone seems pretty sure Jeff will win it again this year.
The sun has set and the winds are picking up. The official race website is reporting 45 mph winds pushing the temperatures around -40F. Jeff continues to lead Aliy, but his marker has momentarily stopped. Dallas has also left White Mountain, but is almost 2 hours behind Aliy.
Something is wrong with Jeff or his GPS is updating because his dot isn’t moving and Aliy is gaining as he sits just a couple miles from Safety. We continue updating the app hoping he and his dogs are okay, but also excited about Aliy’s possible comeback.
They announce Aliy has officially passed Jeff and it’s not a GPS error. Aliy is the first to check into Safety, but is clearly stopping until the winds die down. The officials are clocking winds at 70+ mph at the Safety check point 22 miles outside of Nome. With Aliy waiting for the winds and Jeff pinned down we decided to go to sleep and wakeup around 2:00 AM.
Jeff has officially scratched after flagging down a snow machine for help. His dogs we’re tangled in drift wood and he wasn’t able to get the organized and back on the trail in the strong wind. In more surprising news, Dallas checked in and out of Safety at 1:16. Aliy left in pursuit 14 minutes later. With still 22 miles to Nome we decided to get another hour of sleep.
Aliy is gaining on Dallas and they are within a mile of each other. We slowly get out of bed layering clothes for the brutal temperatures. We wonder if they can even see each other out there? Does Dallas know how close Aliy is? With the drifting snow, maybe he doesn’t know. We eventually get out the door and drive 5 minutes and park just off the finish line.
We can hear the crowd yelling and cheering as we shuffle across the polished icy roads. Not knowing where the finishers are we run along side the crowds of people lining the chute looking to see if anyone has finished. Then the announcer yells out Dallas has just come off the ice and onto the street! We fight for place at the rope and look down the street. The crowd begins to cheer and suddenly we see a team of dogs trotting across the snow and Dallas running along side.
The crowd goes wild and the rope can’t hold the people back as they surround the chute and the 2014 Iditrod champion is named Dallas Seavey! A couple minutes after the announcer yells and there’s Aliy! Now the crowd really errupts with cheers. The officials string out the rope holding the fans back and soon another dog team passes and a smiling Aliy high-fives fans as she glides to the finish line. It seemed like everyone was rooting for Aliy, ourselves included, hoping she could avoid another 2nd place finish. She was a good sport and spent a lot of time with the fans and taking care of her dogs before she left the chute to get some much needed rest and probably think over her strategy and decision to wait at Safety.
Kids leading the way for Aliy’s dogs after the finish
We left and went back to Peter’s thinking of the agony she must be in missing 1st place by just minutes because she decided to wait. She was 12 minutes faster over the last 22 miles, but didn’t have enough distance to overtake Dallas. Dallas however was exhausted and didn’t even realize he was the first to leave Safety. He thought Aliy’s light behind him was his father in 4th and his goal was not to lose to his father. He was shocked to find out he was the winner. We were still amazed how a 8 day race could finish with just minutes between 1st and 2nd. Peter was right, it really was anyone’s race. White Mountain to Nome is 77 miles of unpredictable terrain and weather, and it can often allow last minute lead changes.
We spent the next couple days tracking mushers as they left Safety Checkpoint, headed for Nome, so that we could meet them along the trail. The Nome-Council road follows the trail for several miles, so it was easy to drive a little ways out of town and wait in the warm car to see them racing across the open tundra or sea ice. As they’d pass we’d cheer them on and take photos, then we’d drive a little ways farther, leap frogging past them, to repeat the cheers and photos. This way we were able to see each musher 3 to 4 times as they headed into Nome.
Sonny Linder (5th Place)
Sonny on the Bearing Sea Ice
The conditions changed rapidly from hour to hour and depending on the location of the trail. Some mushers fought whiteout conditions with drifting snow.
Martin Buser (6th Place)
They all had to cross the wind polished sea ice which we saw many mushers slide, fall, and dogs stuggle to maintain any traction.
After they went through the final check at the finish line the dogs were given treats and the mushers were greeted by family and friends.
In the chaos some clever dogs stole some extra treats
The dogs also go through routine vet checks throughout the race including the end.
The dogs then get to rest on straw beds until they are flown home.
While waiting for other finishers we also walked out on the sea ice. It was slippery and you can see the buckling effects of the strong winds and moving tides beneath the surface.
We also watched migratory buntings outside of Peter’s house and even caught a glimpse of a fox.
Jessie Royer (7th Place)
Somehow the sea ice seemed particularly slippery as Jessie came across. Nathan had gone down to the ice to get some different perspective shots of the dog team, and as Jessie headed towards Nathan, they both struggled to gain traction on the ice. A couple minutes of hilarity ensued as Nathan slipped on the ice had to crawl out of the way as Jessie’s dog sled team slipped and slid just several feet from Nathan.
Nathan was extremely embarrassed, only moment ago voicing his concern for the possibility of slipping on the ice and getting tangled with a dog sled team.
Hans Gatt (9th Place)
At this time of year there was about 12 hours of daylight from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm. We could hear the air raid sirens sound throughout the night and morning as the mushers approached Nome, but sadly it was hard to get motivated when you knew it was dark out and they would be hard to photograph.
Robert Sorlie (21st Place)
We also learned there are actually several races that use the Iditarod trail including a bicycle race. They started a week before the dog sled teams, but they are clearly crazier.
They had signs of frost bite and open cuts on their faces after falling many times. They said the winds and drift conditions were the worst between Safety and Nome and they had fallen over the handle bars into the drifts multiple times. We also heard there were people running the 1,000 mile race, but we didn’t see any runners finish.
The last night we had an incredible king crab feast with Peter. It doesn’t come much fresher than being caught right out of the Bearing Sea. We cooked 2 huge crabs giving us each almost 1.5 lb of delicious crab meat!
The last morning after we dropped our bags off at the airport we watched one more musher arrive.
Kristy Berington (30th place)
After the first 10 finishers Nome starts getting back to normal and the crowds die down and sometimes you forget there’s even a race happening. We saw dog sled teams weaving around traffic down Front Street as they made their way to the arch.
Like most finishers their faces were frozen, but they were happy to be done. Kristy’s eyelashes even had ice coating them.
We were to be able to borrow a car from Peter and Jean, which allowed us to greet and follow the mushers into Nome. We also were thankful for the fur hats they lent us which by far out-performed any synthetic hat we had brought.
It was an incredible 4 day experience. We have a greater respect for people who enjoy living in Nome and it was great fun to watch the Iditarod finishers, but we were out of time and off to Fairbanks!
We couldn’t include all the photos in our post so check out the rest below.