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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”