May 25, 2019

Eye on the Trail: Jr. Iditarod Starts

Anna Coke in Bib #4 Departs for Yentna Station Roadhouse

It’s partly cloudy in Knik and the temperature is climbing from the zero mark.  There’s plenty of snow as Mother Nature has been good to mushers and snow machiners over the recent weeks.  Trail officials have groomed and marked the trail.  The question yet to be answered, will the trail set up or will it stay soft?  After running the entire trail by snowmachine the day before the race, race officials are optimistic that the trial will be closer to hard and fast than soft and slow.

Two mature bald eagles sat high in an oak tree near the edge of Knik Lake.  They had the ultimate view of all the pre-race preparations by the Jr. Iditarod mushers.  The kids were very efficient in packing their sleds, laying out the gang lines, booting, harnessing and hooking up.  That was all accomplished under the watchful eyes of the two eagles.  The young mushers were too busy to appreciate this very special gift of Mother Nature.

Once the sled bags were packed, Jr. Iditarod officials circulated for the official mandatory gear check.  It’s a long list created for the wellbeing and safety of the mushers and dogs.  The list includes cold weather sleeping bag, ax, snowshoes, headlamp booties, lighter, dog food cooker, socks, rain gear, gloves and HEET.  Last evening at the musher meeting, Jim Uhl, a retired “shop” teacher, provided the rookies with a fix-it kit and showed them all sorts of tricks for repairing broken sleds.  That’s an abbreviated list but you get the gist of how prepared these kids are.

Grace Hill in Bib #7 Departs for Yentna Station Roadhouse

The start went flawlessly. Teams departed in two-minute intervals. As soon as bib number 2 departed, team 3 came to the banner.  Handlers held the excited sled dogs for the count down and at ZERO, the dogs charged down the trail.  With seven teams, the start took exactly 14 minutes.  Trail breakers are out in front of the lead musher and a trail sweep will follow.

Jr. Iditarod Honorary Musher Barb Redington

Honorary musher, Barb Redington, wore bib number 1 as she attended to multiple tasks at the start this morning.  Official Iditarod photographer, Jeff Schultz, was doing what Jeff does best – candid photos of mushers and dogs.  Many of the volunteers are veterans and simply know what needs doing.  Right from plowing parking space on the lake to setting up the banner, volunteers are there to lend a hand.

Jeff Schultz Capturing Candid Shots of Dogs and Mushers

As the teams run the trail this afternoon, the sky is clear, the sun shinning brightly and the wind is light.  The temperature is in the upper teens.  It’s an exceptional winter day.  Many snow machiners have been in and out of the Yentna Station Roadhouse to refuel their machines and themselves.  There’s not a place for 100 miles that serves better burgers.  Soups on the menu today include beef barley and chicken noodle.

Jean and Dan Gabryszak of Yentna Station Roadhouse

Dan and Jean Gabryszak are the ultimate hosts for not only the Jr. Iditarod checkpoint but also the first checkpoint of Iditarod.  They came to the Big Bend of the Yentna River in the early 80’s to build the roadhouse on land Dan had his eye on near his hunting grounds.  They are legendary for their hospitality and how they serve people of the area and recreationists in all seasons of the year.  Saying thank you to Dan and Jean along with their adult children who help out during Iditarod is just plane insufficient but it’s a good place to start, so THANK YOU Dan and Jean.

After arriving at Yentna Station Roadhouse, teams will camp in the woods along the bank of the Yentna River.  Once the dogs are cared for and fed, the mushers will spend time with both old and new friend around the campfire.  It’s a race tradition that the first mushers to make the half-way check tend to their dogs then build the campfire for all to enjoy through out the night.

After serving the ten-hour required rest plus the start differential the teams will depart for Willow. As I write currently, from Yentna Station, we estimate the first teams to arrive around 6:00 pm or in Idita-speak 18:00 hours.  That puts the first teams back on the trail in the morning around 4:00 am (04:00). The inbound trail to Willow is a few miles longer than the outbound trail from Knik.  The total length of the race will be about 153 miles.