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Jeremy Keller, who ran part of 2020 Iditarod before mushing back home, says this year’s trail will present new challenges for racers

Keller dropped out in Nikolai and took last year’s trail back to the start
Published: Mar. 5, 2021 at 11:01 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When veteran musher Jeremy Keller made the decision to drop out of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race shortly after its start last March — citing the COVID-19 pandemic as his main reason for scratching — he was also making the conscious choice to take the Iditarod’s northern route backward instead of forward.

At the time of his scratch, Keller said little about the trail itself, but spoke of his desire to be back with his loved ones.

“As things avalanche globally with closures and sickness and death,” he said, “I’ve decided it’s time to turn around and go home — go home and be with family.”

RELATED: Home, away from Nome: Keller reaches personal finish line after scratching from Iditarod 48

Keller also noted the clear intention that the trail be traveled in a forward fashion.

“The trail is not designed to go in reverse,” he said in a video published to Facebook shortly after his departure from Nikolai, which is where he scratched. “It’s designed to go forward. The obstacles can be many.”

This week, Keller went into much more detail about what he faced during his return trip, and some of the trail features he expects others to be challenged by as they navigate the newly-minted Gold Trail Loop, the Iditarod route for 2021.

“It’s a lot harder to go backwards,” Keller said. “And the reason why is, the trail was built to go forwards. No one cares about going backwards because no one goes backwards.”

The loop, for the most part, is actually more of an out-and-back track following the southern Iditarod route — with the latter generally being reserved for travel during odd-numbered years — from Deshka Landing to Iditarod. From there, racers will circle around Flat, and then return to Iditarod to follow the same general path back as they make their ways to the finish line, which will also be at Deshka Landing this year.

The trail itself is estimated by Iditarod to be about 852 miles long, versus closer to 1,000 miles during regular years.

“It’s been a challenge,” said longtime Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman. “But everybody has been up to the task.”

Nordman added that there is no checkpoint at Flat, and that the race plan for prepping trails is “pretty much the same” as usual, with some additional efforts surrounding the format of the race itself.

“Of course, they are coming back, so we’re looking at making trails a little bit wider should there be any passing,” he said, noting that the several dozen mushers entered this year will end up being spread out over a couple hundred miles by the end of the race.

“But a lot of work on the trail this year; a huge amount of snow all the way from Winterlake Lodge, all the way to Rohn,” he said. “It thins out a little bit after that, but the boys really had to do a lot of work to get Dalzell [Gorge] put in once again.”

A map of the Gold Trail Loop. Courtesy Iditarod Insider.
A map of the Gold Trail Loop. Courtesy Iditarod Insider.(KTUU / Iditarod Insider)

Trail breakers have been “grooming” the path that teams will be taking, Nordman said, having made tracks, gotten rid of some of the brush, and cleared and flattened out certain spots. Additionally, the crew that broke trail out to Iditarod will also continue its work on the way back toward Deshka Landing.

Along with locals in the communities along race route, some trail breakers may also spend more time at certain parts of the trail to make sure it remains in passable condition throughout the duration of the race, according to Nordman.

This year, the mushers and their teams will be expected to make stops at checkpoints including Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, Rohn, Nikolai, McGrath, Ophir and Iditarod. Unlike more traditional years, neither Yentna nor Takotna will serve as official checkpoints in 2020, but the trail will go by both areas, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee.

Still, as it was for Keller — and presumably as it will be for those traveling the trail this year — heading north and returning south along the same path is certainly much different from taking the Iditarod trail one way.

Take Dalzell Gorge, for example: Keller said this was one of the particularly challenging areas on his way back home, even though in his experience, some spots were of similar difficulty both ways.

“Later in the run at Dalzell, there’s some downhills that were banked wrong,” he said, reflecting on his run last year. “So, it’s really sketchy, because everything is working wrong, and you’re going to crash.

“And basically, through the Burn, there’s a couple of steep uphills,” he continued. “It’s all dirt and gravel, but because you’re going up — so you’re going towards Nome — off to your left, this hill slides away into a ravine. But you’re going up, so your sled inertia is not taking you there. It’s easy. Coming back? You don’t know when that hill is coming.”

Iditarod Musher Jeremy Keller, who at the time was a rookie, makes last minute adjustment to...
Iditarod Musher Jeremy Keller, who at the time was a rookie, makes last minute adjustment to his sled before the start of the 1,100 mile sled dog race to Nome in Willow, Alaska Sunday, March 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)(AL Grillo | AP)

He was able to easily tackle tamer sections, such as wider, frozen rivers, without much change or hassle.

The entire trail has been scouted multiple times by trail breakers, though, and Nordman said he anticipates success with this year’s route.

“The plan is solid,” he said. “Personally, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be involved in it this year. But it’s a whole different venue.

“I can get them up to Nome blindfolded with all my friends in the villages,” he added. “But this is a whole new setup for us, and it’s exciting.”

The three mandatory layovers this year will include a 24-hour layover, anywhere from Skwentna to Iditarod on the way out; an eight-hour layover, anywhere along the stretch from Rohn to the loop at Flat and back to Rohn; and an eight-hour layover at Skwentna on the return trip, which will serve as a sort of replacement for the usual mandatory layover at White Mountain. Mushers are expected to camp out more than usual, and perhaps not take extensive breaks at checkpoints as often as they normally would.

“I’m just really pleased with the way the plan is set up,” Nordman said. “So I’m excited about this year, and our 50th is coming up right around the corner.”

Forty-seven mushers and their dogs are set to toe the start line on Sunday. Keller is not one of them; he will instead be on a mushing trip closer to his home in McCarthy, he said, and enjoying time with his family.

There also will not be a ceremonial start in Anchorage this year, as race officials are trying to limit attendance in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and municipal mandates would currently not allow such a large gathering.

Additionally, spectators will not be admitted to the “restart” at Deshka Landing.

For more information on how to watch the 49th running of the Iditarod, check out this article. You may also get a more in-depth description of sections of the trail by visiting this website and clicking on the separate checkpoints one at a time.

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