With ninety-four sled dogs parked at the Yentna Station Roadhouse on the big bend of the Yentna River, the silence of the bush country was anything but silent. Likened to a slumber party or teenage lock in for canine athletes, there was lots of barking and howling. First the dogs greeted each new team that arrived then there might have been a few hours of relative quiet but as soon as the mushers began to prepare their athletes for departure, the silence once again turned to barks and howls of excitement as the sled dogs vocalized their love for what they do – run & pull.
First out the checkpoint was Conway Seavey at 02:08. His team was fed, booted and harnessed, his campsite was clean, his sled was packed and Conway was dressed and ready to leave when his countdown reached zero. With temperatures in the teens above zero, Seavey expected a hard fast trail and figured to make the finish line at Happy Trails Kennel around eight in the morning. Seavey is out with ten dogs.
Hot on his tail and departing just two minutes after Conway was Ben Harper. As Ben walked forward to his leaders hooking up tug lines then collecting the snow hooked the kept his team lined out while resting, he was heard to say to his leaders, “Let’s go catch us some Seavey!” They may be friends around the campfire but on the trail, they are both true competitors. Ben is out with nine dogs. GPS tracker is showing the leaders running right on top of each other.
Jimmy Lanier with the amazing May in lead departed his camping spot at 02:18. Lanier’s dogs were up off the straw adding their two-cents worth to the commotion of the checkpoint and happy to get back on the trail. Lanier was hopeful to knock a little time off his outbound run. In doing so, he’d make the finish line before the sun has it’s opportunity to rise high in the sky and affect the speed of the trail. If May does her job, he should accomplish his goal.
Kevin Harper and team left five minutes after Lanier. Kevin, a rookie and fairly new to racing had his checkpoint/camping routine down to a science. Judging by his howling, barking, lunging athletes they appreciated his efficiency and were ready to run, even in the wee hours of the morning.
Ashley Guernsey, Andrew Nolan and Jannelle Trowbridge all headed down to the river and onto the inbound traila couple of minutes before 03:00. Trowbridge’s dogs had been on their feet leaning into their traces for several minutes before she she’d served her layover and differential. They charged down the trail with enough energy and enthusiasm to cause their rookie musher to hold tight to the driving bow and concentrate on the tight trail until hitting the river.
Joshua Klejka and Nicole Forto left the checkpoint with energetic dog teams at 03:43 and 04:45 respectively. I talking with Joshua who lives in Bethel, he said their winter hasn’t been favorable for training sled dogs. He didn’t feel the dogs had enough miles on them to be competitive so he was considering this to be a great opportunity to camp with his dogs. It appeared Klejka and team were all enjoying the Junior Iditarod immensely. Nicole was running a number of dogs out of Hugh Neff’s kennel. She said she decided to get into mushing because her Father is considering a run at Iditarod someday. Mushing is something they can do together.
When Seavey hit the trail the night sky was cloudy. When Nicole hit the trail, the clouds disappeared the stars shown brilliantly and as northern lights danced into the sky, an orange quarter moon rose over the tree lined river bank opposite the roadhouse. Perhaps Mother Nature was trying to make up for the unusual winter with the beauty of the early morning.
If you happened to do the math and wonder why there would be ninety-four sled dogs at Yentna Station when there are only nine teams each with a maximum of ten dogs, here’s the story. A fellow came in skijoring behind a sled pulled by four Siberian Sled dogs. He camped at Yentna over night. He’s in route to Nome, covering thirty miles a day. He has sent food and supplies ahead to various points on his route. Rough calculations put him in Nome in about a month.