For those mushing the Iditarod trail, the ultimate form of social distancing, coronavirus news begins to trickle in

Kelly Maixner feeding his dog team at the Cripple checkpoint on Thursday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Cripple — As news of emergency measures and coronavirus closures spreads, there’s at least one group of people that is almost totally in the dark: Iditarod mushers.

Traveling mostly alone in the wilderness the last few days, many are learning about global, national and local developments almost by accident from people in checkpoints — if at all.

Aaron Burmeister blew through the Cripple checkpoint, stopping just long enough to grab supplies and straw. He’d not yet heard news from the last few hours that the Iditarod has decided to postpone its annual Awards Banquet in his hometown of Nome.

“I didn’t hear, that’s the first. That’s kinda funny,” he said. “That’s odd. I’d be surprised. But now is not the time to worry about it.”

A few seconds later, Burmeister pulled his snow hook and continued racing north toward Ruby.

The Cripple checkpoint on Thursday.(Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Mushers in Cripple say they weren’t concerned about getting sick from the virus while out on the trail. And there’s little to no evidence it can be transmitted to pets or dog teams from humans.

“Am I worried about coronavirus out here? No, I’m not,” said musher Kelly Maixner who works as a pediatric dentist.

Mushing, after all, is sort of the ultimate form of social distancing. Michelle Phillips said it’s actually a relief not to be bombarded with news about the global pandemic.

“It’s been quite pleasant not hearing about out it,” she said.

Michelle Phillips takes her 24-hour break at the Cripple checkpoint on Thursday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Phillips and Maixner both stressed basic measures like hand-washing and hygiene. Even though they say they weren’t worried, mushers said they were surprised about all of the enormous steps being taken to contain the illness, which they found out about sporadically at race checkpoints.

Here was Brent Sass’s reaction to finding out the NBA has suspended its season: “What?! Oh BLEEP.”

He said he didn’t know the virus has become such a major issue.

“So it’s for real then. At least people are thinking it’s for real. Canceling NBA is pretty hardcore,” he said.

Paige Drobny’s sleepy dogs at the Cripple checkpoint on Thursday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Sass said he’s normally pretty unplugged and doesn’t spend a lot of time following news events. During the Iditarod, it’s no different.

“Glad I’m out here in the middle of nowhere,” he said, and laughed.

But mushers who came to the race from overseas are suddenly having to deal with a whole new set of logistical challenges on top of the race itself. Thomas Waerner was on the trail when he first learned about new U.S. travel restrictions affecting 26 European countries, including Norway, where he lives.

“It was a snowmachiner (who) said it. And I got an InReach, I got a message, ‘I have to leave,’ my wife said,” he said.

Thomas Waerner mushing into the Cripple checkpoint on Thursday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Waerner’s wife is in Alaska and was set to be at the finish in Nome, but now there’s a risk she could get stuck if flights stop between the U.S. and Europe. So she’s rebooking to get back to Norway early, Waerner said.

For his part, Waerner will keep racing. But that will mean even more challenges trying to get himself and 14 sled dogs back home afterward.

“I think I will go to Nome first. But I think it’s going to be a problem. Because it’s really expensive, because you have to have four people, and each person has to have four dogs, so you have to find four people who can go to Norway. And back. And pay the tickets, and everything. So that’s going to be expensive,” he said.

Not everyone is choosing to continue, though. Veteran Jeremy Keller, who had been running at the back of the pack, scratched in Nikolai.

According to a release from the Iditarod Trail Committee, he did so “due to current events,” and wanting “to be home with his friends and family during this stressful time.” Rather than flying out, Keller is mushing his team back down the trail to Willow.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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