At 3pm and later in the afternoon, mushers are beginning to trickle into the Cripple checkpoint. Two mushers who started their run to the front did so from Nikolai to Takotna the day before were Mitch and Dallas Seavey. They appear to be in the lead arriving Cripple with John Baker moving into third place. The field is still backed up but there was some separation most notably Mitch Seavey with a 216pm arrival into Cripple which is a good hour and half lead over the next musher, and quite possibly more. The question remains in this race, was it a good time to project yourself into the lead and cushion yourself. The run to Ruby will tell if Mitch can sustain that lead, because if he does sustain, it will be hard to catch Mitch on the harder surface trail of the Yukon.
Conditions of the trail tell that the 25 miles to Cripple were the most difficult to traverse. The trail breakers talk of getting off their snow machines only to sink waist deep into the snow. We will hear complaints of how bad the trail is and I say welcome to the rigors of the Iditarod Sled Dog race. Mushers know now why snowshoes are required for if the team fell off the trail, you would need to pack it down in order for the dogs to get back to the trail.
While we heard of the nice conditions before the Alaska range, we can now expect mushers in Ruby to talk of the tough trail from Ophir to Ruby. In fact, there has been some change in the positions of the race, some of it can be attributed to the trail conditions. If Mitch can have his team maintain their current speed on the next leg, it will be very hard to make any move to catch him unless a storm and poor trail conditions show up. We have also seen where in this section of the race whether it be on the South or North section, the lead team falters a little due to a number of factors. Finally, we will want to see how much rest time Mitch takes at the Cripple checkpoint and whether he can maintain his momentum going into Ruby. He definitely is of top concern right now to the top field of mushers. That field by the way has changed some as a result of the run from Takotna to Cripple, and you may see the beginning of a contending field.
There are pluses and minuses to doing a speed move from Nikolai to Cripple incorporating the twenty four into the equation. The slow field now gets an earlier opportunity to cut into the rest time, which could slow down teams that need rest in order to maintain speed. Assuming Mitch takes 5 ½ to 6 hours rest in Cripple, someone may be able to go on only 4 ½ hours rest and arrive into Ruby about the same time. Well you say, than with 8 hours rest in Ruby, Mitch will go flying down the Yukon, which is true but still there will need to again be some rest time. All these variables provide for an interesting next few days and stay tuned for the drama on the Yukon.
Sam Towarak, retired school teacher, dog musher, and sports commentator, lives in Unalakleet, Alaska.