Dispatches from the Trail: Ophir to Iditarod rattles mushers and media alike

 DeeDee Jonrowe and Aliy Zirkle (KTUU)
DeeDee Jonrowe and Aliy Zirkle (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Mar. 7, 2019 at 7:59 PM AKST
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DeeDee Jonrowe talks about the tough trail conditions from Ophir to Iditarod. She says it's not a lack of snow, but deep, loose snow, that makes the trail tough, for dogs and machines alike.

It was this mornign at 2 a.m. when we finally got here.

There's only one team in and she was about 25 minutes ahed of us and that's Aliy Zirkle.

She's on her 24-hour break, her dogs are bedded down. They looked good.

That trail is so bad, that nobody looks "great" including the snowmachine that we towed in.

What happened on the trail?

Well first of all, the trail leading out of Ophir was snowy, kindof deep, that was twisty, but not bad. It had a pretty good base, it was traveling along well. Don's cabin is where I saw that Aliy had taken a break. You could see that because of the straw, then I talked to one of the bicyclists that was there and asked if they were going to travel on the trail, he said it was too soft. He said he was told that on the other side, there would be less snow.

That wasn't exactly the case.

Coming down into the next drainage there, we see that Aliy's moving. So we turned the machines off and waited for an hour or two. I don't want to put any pressure on any of the dogs, I don't want any distractions from anybody's team, and I know, because I know the trail, that we're about to break out in the open and we're going to be able to get far, far away and not be a distraction. So we wait for about an hour and we take off and head out, and sure enough, we get out in the open. But in the open, where I really thought the trail would improve, the trail deteriorated significantly.

The big tussocks are not just big tussocks, they are big, frozen boulders, and the snow that you see kinddof peppered out through there, if the wind had blown and filled them in and it was hard, that would've been pretty good going, but that is not the case. There was snow that is not setting up that every time you go and roll it crashes out from under you and there's no snow there. So all along the trail, anywhere you go, you're able to get off the trail significantly, which we did, but you're still rocking and rolling and all that shaking and rocking and rolling did something electrical to the Expedition that Mike's driving, so after about an hour and a half of troubleshooting, Aliy comes up along behind us while we're working on the machine off the trail, but the trail's not that easy to find.

There are massive markers, which, I gotta say good on you trail breakers, there are lots of markers out there, and you need them. Just about that time, she hits a tussock, boulders over, so she gets herself back up. I throw my headlight on the line of markers that are off to the right of us, because I know that dogs will head to the markers, and that way they won't be sucked over to something broken down on the far far side of the trail, which was us, and she goes right on by, and actually I was jealous, I wish I was on that dog team, because I've got 36 years of massaging a team down the trail, abut it's all about the bond and the trust and I look at that machine and I'm going, 'I don't think she's bonded to me too much, and I don't think there's a lot of trust there.' I'm not really sure what the next step is.

Is the trail worse than in years past?

This is one of the worst that I've seen through here. Mind you, it's been five years since I came through here. The tussocks seem to be a little more pronounced, and it's almost easier if you were sliding on a little less snow, because you wouldn't be rocking and rolling so much. There would be a bottom in the part that you start to roll into, so actually, I think the last 20 miles out of here, or coming into here, is some of the worst I've seen, even on the coast.

When mushers get here, what's the strategy that play out?

You know one of the things they’re going to have to see is everyone’s going to get here and they’re going to look at the run times. She’s (Aliy Zirkle) not on her 24, now she’s on her 24, 17 and a half hours to get over here. That’s a long run for anybody, but remember probably 3 1/2 to 4 hours of that is resting, so take that off, you’re looking at a pretty normal time, 12 hours coming across there. A little longer than usual from Ophir. What are we gonna see with these guys behind us? I don’t believe anybody can make time on that and not have some issues. it’s just not the kind of trail. Moving slow is good because it keeps the dogs just kind of stretched out and they’re moving along but they’re not getting hurt because they’re not going fast in the unstable trail. Actually, I think the dogs handle this really well, a lot like when we went down the Gorge with no snow, and all the dogs look great. The mushers look beat to pieces and the dogs look really good and I believe that’s what we’ll see here, but nobody is really going to be able to make time on this trail.