Iditarod rookie describes trip down steep and twisty Dalzell Gorge as ‘just zip, zoom, zag, bing, bang, boom’

A dog team
Joe Taylor sets off down the trail from Rohn on Tuesday. “I just put on a fresh pair of socks, so my mood totally changed,” Taylor said at the checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Iditarod teams passed from the rolling foothills of the Alaska Range into some of the trail’s most challenging terrain on their way from Rainy Pass Lodge to the abandoned postal outpost of Rohn.

Top teams, which navigated the precarious Dalzell Gorge in daylight, reported good trail conditions when they arrived on Monday afternoon.

“It was great, compared to last year,” said Brent Sass as he quickly tore open his drop bags and loaded his sled. “Easy, enjoyable.”

The Dalzell Gorge is a twisty trail marked by a series of steep downhills and some very tight turns.

A dog team in the dark
Dallas Seavey’s team arrives in Rohn. He immediately asked about his dad Mitch Seavey’s team, which departed right as Dallas arrived. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Defending champion Dallas Seavey said his dogs cruised down the gorge after a rest near the top of Rainy Pass.

“They act like they haven’t done anything all winter so they start bombing down here at 100 miles per hour,” said Seavey.

Mille Porsild stopped for some rest in Rohn and slurped down cold spaghetti that she had packed in a vacuum-sealed bag.

“It’s unbelievable to me that there’s a trail through that gorge,” she said.

Farther back, teams struggled over the pass. A storm rolled in, cutting visibility to just a few yards.

“There was no trail from the team that was in front of me, which hadn’t been very long in front of me,” said rookie Bridgett Watkins. “It was literally marker to marker there for a minute.”

A woman melts snow
Rookie Bridgett Watkins melts snow at the Rohn checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Running down the gorge was even more harrowing in the darkness.

“It’s just zip, zoom, zag, bing, bang, boom — like a pingpong ball through there. You just gotta drive,” she said. “I can see how people can break sleds in there.”

Rookie Eric Kelly had done just that. His brush bow — a rounded attachment on the front of his sled to keep runners from getting hooked on trees — had broken in a collision.

A black and brown dog
Ultima, Gerhardt Thiart’s lead dog, got free going down Dalzell Gorge. Thiart found him farther down the trail. Race rules would have disqualified him from continuing to compete if he hadn’t. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Another rookie, Gerhardt Thiart of South Africa, also had a misstep. After a rough ride on a descent that involved several strong bumps into trees, he turned a sharp corner to realize his lead dog was missing. Somehow the dog’s clip had broken in one of the collisions, allowing him to run ahead

“I saw footprints running down the trail,” he said. “Went down the trail and stopped to do something and there he is: ‘What’s up boss man, I’m back!’”

A dog teams with mountains in the background
Aaron Burmeister’s team departs down the glazed south fork of the Kuskokwim River on Monday evening. Burmeister left in second place and arrived in Nikolai first. Checkpoint officials rerouted part of the course a few miles from Rohn due to overflow on the river. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A musher sorts through bags
Jeff King looks through Nic Petit’s drop bags. King took over from Petit’s team at the last minute after Petit tested positive for COVID. King said he heard Petit packed Fireball and was excited to have some candy, but later learned that Petit had packed Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. As a non-smoker, King tossed the cigarettes in a return bag. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
The leader of a dog team jumps high in the air
A team arrives at the Rohn Checkpoint on Tuesday, March 8. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.