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Uncertainty ahead, but it’s a close race at Iditarod’s midpoint: ‘It’s anyone’s game right now’

Duct tape covers “to Nome,” the normal end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Duct tape covers “to Nome,” the normal end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.(KTUU)
Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 6:55 AM AKST
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IDITAROD, Alaska (KTUU) - Iditarod has zero year-round residents. For a brief few days every other year, the ghost town sees its population swell with hundreds of sled dogs and their mushers passing through.

Brent Sass, the musher who arrived first at the checkpoint on Wednesday, was able to sleep in a cabin, largely by himself, for five hours. That was the first decent stretch of rest he’s had since setting out from Deshka Landing on Saturday.

“I feel like a brand new person,” he said.

The 80-miles of trail between the Ophir checkpoint and Iditarod is notorious for deep and windblown snow. Sass said the trip is “always a gamble.”

“It was not as bad as I thought it could have been, for sure,” he added.

The once-thriving city of Iditarod gave the trail its name. It also marks the halfway point of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

In normal years, mushers would head across to Shageluk and onto Nome. But not much is normal in 2021.

Travis Beals, who took his eight-hour layover in Iditarod, said mushers can usually say goodbye to the Alaska Range.

“I guess we get so hello again, too,” he added.

The Gold Trail Loop will see dog teams head back to Ophir and eventually onto Deshka Landing. That poses a largely new challenge for mushers on the Iditarod Trail, trying to pass teams coming in the other direction.

“You hope you don’t meet people in certain places, that’s for sure. The whole way I was coming over, I was thinking, ‘Oof, I hope I don’t meet somebody right there,’” Sass said.

After temperatures dropped overnight, dog teams rested in the heat of the sun at -5′F. Several mushers took off extra-wide runner plastic from their sleds which are used to travel better over soft snow.

Canadian musher Aaron Peck fitted thinner runner plastic, notching it in with the back of his axe. He expected a firmer trail on the ride back to Ophir.

Peck has been running with the top pack, but he knows he’s only halfway there. “Everything has gone to plan. We’ll see where the cards line up,” he said.

There are head-on passes, well-known hazards over the Alaska Range and a trail tightly packed with mushers all vying to be the next Iditarod champion.

“It’s anyone’s game right now, I don’t feel like there’s anyone who’s running away with it,” Sass said.

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