EAGLE ISLAND — By late Saturday morning, the leaders of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had come and gone from this remote checkpoint, and the next group of teams had settled in. It’s unlikely they can close the gap, some of them said.
“The guys out front right now are running an awesome race,” said musher Aaron Burmeister, who’s placed in the Iditarod top 10 four times. “We’re not chasing them. We’re a long ways behind.”
Burmeister scooped snow into a big pot that he would heat to make water. His 11 sled dogs rested atop piles of straw, between about a half-dozen other teams.
They had made it 592 miles into the 1,000-mile race. Through the steep and twisty Dalzell Gorge. Through the punishing tussock-studded trail. Through the warm temperatures and the rain. Ahead: the Bering Sea coast.
“It’s been interesting with all the weather that we’ve had, so I’m hoping to get these guys to Nome in as good a place as we can,” said Burmeister, who lists his hometowns as Nenana and Nome.
The Eagle Island checkpoint is not much more than a snowy patch of land and a few tents, just up a hill from the Yukon River. It’s about halfway between the villages of Grayling and Kaltag.
Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle described the 62-mile trail on the Yukon River from Grayling to here as “exceptional.” It was firm with a few spots of overflow, Burmeister said.
Zirkle, Burmeister and the other mushers here worked near their dog teams under cloudy skies. They cycled through their routines: Put down straw, melt snow, feed dogs, feed yourself, sort sled bag.
Matt Hall, of Two Rivers, was heating up chowder in a pot of warm water near his sled on Saturday. He said he prefers to run the river at night, by the light of his headlamp. That way, it seems less flat and featureless and endless.
Hall said he was happy with his current position. He was 12th Saturday evening. Last year, he finished in 11th.
“As far as catching people,” he said, “I’m not sure that’s in our cards right now.”
For Ester musher Paige Drobny, the issue was sleep.
“I’m just trying to stay awake,” she said. “I pretty much slept the whole way here, jolted by the trail constantly.”
Drobny and others also said the warm weather had proved to be one of the more challenging parts of this year’s Iditarod. Drobny dished out cold water to her dogs here, an effort to keep them cool.
She said she didn’t really know where she stood in the race. (She was 13th Saturday evening.) It’s hard to tell with teams taking their 8-hour breaks in different spots, she said. Drobny last ran the Iditarod in 2016 and placed 43rd.
Zirkle, a three-time Iditarod runner-up, was fastening booties to her dogs paws around 10:15 a.m. Saturday and preparing to leave.
One of the more challenging parts of her race this year: Her “big adventure” to the checkpoint of Iditarod for her 24-hour mandatory rest, she said. It had yet to launch her to the very front of the pack. But, she said, she’s still racing to win. Anything can happen, she said, maybe everyone takes a wrong turn except her. Who knows.
“I mean Iditarod is life, really,” she said. "It’s a microcosm for, you know, seeing these challenges and going toward them and not shying away and overcoming hurdles and issues and kind of overcoming them face on.”