Iditarod teams navigate rough, windblown trail into Nikolai

Musher Hugh Neff signs Gabriel Petruska’s book in Nikolai. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

NIKOLAI — Iditarod musher Hugh Neff was exhausted as he rested outside a wall tent at the checkpoint here Tuesday afternoon, about a quarter of the way into the 1,000-mile competition.

He said his 54-year-old body ached from the stretch of windblown, icy and rocky trail into the village of Nikolai.

“I’ve taken a few Tylenols, let’s say,” he said.

A musher going through the Farewell burn area, where a forest fire about a decade ago left charred spruce trees along the trail. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

From the prior checkpoint at Rohn, teams ran into hilly spruce terrain on a narrow trail. Before long, the spruce trees turned into skeletons, a result of a forest fire a decade ago that left the area exposed to wind.

Neff said he tried to slow his team by stepping on the sled’s brake. But it just tore up dust and clay on the ground.

“All that clay comes up in the air — dirt or whatever it is,” he said. “And it goes in your eyes, in your nostrils. It’s like you’re in a coal mine or something.”

At one point, Neff said, his sled tipped on its side, and he got dragged.

“The wind was probably 50 miles per hour and it just flipped us over like a rag doll,” he said. 

Two people talking near a dog sled
Mushers Aaron Burmeister and Jessie Holmes talk while stopped at the Nikolai checkpoint on Tuesday. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

He came to a halt only after yelling stop to Jessie Holmes, whose team he was following. That forced his dogs to stop as well.

Things hardly got better, he said of the long, monotonous run through the flatlands out of the mountains.

RELATED: How do mushers afford the Iditarod? Anja Radano says every year it’s a struggle. 

Neff wasn’t alone in the struggle.

Teams pulling into Nikolai throughout the day described a snowless section worse than any year in recent memory.

“That was a pretty rock-and-roll section for sure,” said Michelle Phillips. “It was super bumpy. Super rough.”

a musher arrives to Nikolai and checks in with race officials
Hannah Lyrek arrives at the Nikolai checkpoint on Tuesday and checks in with race official Marty Runkle. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media).

Rookie Hanna Lyrek put a less cheerful spin on it. 

“It was not fun,” she said. “It was worse than I thought it would be, but I’m happy to be here.”

Most teams stopped in Nikolai for a few hours to rest.

A cut-out Bernie Sanders next to a sign that says: Welcome to Iditarod Trail checkpoint Nikolai
A Bernie Sanders cutout makes a guest appearance at the Nikolai checkpoint. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Nikolai is on the banks of the south fork of the Kuskokwim River. It’s the first Athabascan village the race travels through, and the first community after the Alaska Range.

two people stand near two burn barrels that are heating up water
Nikolai resident Bob Esai watches Iditarod musher Aaron Burmeister fill up on hot water to feed his dog team Tuesday morning. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey said the community offers a lot of amenities, like two giant barrels of hot water. That meant his dogs could get fed quicker and then get to sleep quicker too, he said.

Residents watched and visited with teams at the the snowy riverfront checkpoint while dogs rested.

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Nikolai resident Oline Petruska said she grew up traveling with dog teams. She says it’s nice for kids to learn a little about mushing when the race comes through town. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Nikolai resident Oline Petruska said she grew up traveling with dog teams. But kids in her village don’t have that experience now, so it’s nice for them to learn a little about mushing when the race comes through town. 

“It’s a really exciting time for us — meet all new friends and old friends and all our mushers, old mushers and new mushers alike. We just love people,” she said.

Some mushers who paused in Nikolai had maintenance and repairs to do.

Carrying an armful of black strips of plastic to take to the trash, Kristy Berington said she had worried about her sled even making it to Nikolai. A piece had broken off of it earlier in the race.

A person carrying white canvas bags and black strips of plastic in a snowy area
Kristy Berington carries worn out sled runners and other supplies to a trash area at the checkpoint in Nikolai. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

She said she’d be relieved once she made it to McGrath, the next checkpoint, where she had shipped a spare sled — something several other mushers had also done.

Two people look at a clipboard outside
Pete Kaiser checks in with race official Marty Runkle at the Nikolai checkpoint. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Pete Kaiser said he had a few bolts come off of his foot board on the bumpy ride in, but he carried replacements that he could use to fix it. He was glad he didn’t crash.

“But had a bunch of near misses,” he said. “Normal Iditarod stuff.”

Race veterinarian Molly Ebinger checks on Flash, one of Michelle Phillips’ dogs, at the Nikolai checkpoint. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

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Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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