Sportsmanship, friendly competition featured in Rookie of the Year battle

March 13 morning Iditarod update
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 2:52 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

UNALAKLEET, Alaska (KTUU) - Rookie Eddie Burke Jr. arrived in Unalakleet on Sunday just 22 minutes after fellow rookie Hunter Keefe, and left only three minutes after. The two young mushers have been following each other’s tracks since the Willow restart — and even sharing some of the same tracks.

On the run from Grayling to Eagle Island, Burke Jr. of Alaska Wildstyle Racing in Nenana fell asleep and fell off his sled while his team continued on about 15 to 20 miles to the next checkpoint without him. While laying down hay at the Unalakleet checkpoint — the first along the Western Alaska coast — Burke told reporters about the experience.

“When I got back to the checkpoint, they were all scared and looked like I abandoned them, they were all sour attitudes,” Burke Jr. said. “I’m like, ‘I didn’t leave you guys, not on purpose!’”

With few options after his 11 dogs took off without him, Burke starting walking to Eagle Island before another musher on the trail came up behind him.

“I thought I was catching a team because I saw a headlight, and then I realized that oh, it was a person walking,” Rookie Hunter Keefe, of Knik said. “There’s the [International Trail Invitational] walkers and stuff, so I figured it must have been one of them. And hen he kind of stopped really close with trail and I was like, ‘oh, that’s Eddie,’”.

Keefe didn’t hesitate to double-up and give Burke Jr. a ride, which would only hurt Keefe’s own race time.

“I didn’t really think twice, I let him on, because I wouldn’t want to be walking at 20 below,” Keefe said in Unalakleet, where his team was resting across the dog lot from Burke Jr.’s team.

“That was big time, being a true sportsman,” Burke Jr. said.

But Keefe, who is running Raymie Redington’s dogs, knows how much his team is capable of.

“It really showed how incredible my team was because he hopped on the sled, so we doubled the load, and you can ask him — not one dog ever looked back for even half a second wondering what was going on. They just chugged along like little freight trains they were,” Keefe said.

After Keefe carried Burke Jr. for 8 to 10 miles, a member of the Iditarod race staff pulled up on a snowmachine and gave Burke Jr. a ride to the checkpoint, where his dogs were now waiting.

Both Burke Jr. and Keefe are running strong races to this point, each of them running into or close to the top-1-. Now, the two rookies take on the rugged Western Alaska Coast for the first time.