Wandering bison and bone-jarring moguls challenge back-of-the-pack Iditarod mushers

A woman in a purple outer layer ties a boot while sitting on a cafeteria bench
Apayauq Reitan ties her overboots after stuffing her feet in a garbage bag to protect them from overflow. March 9, 2022 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Yuka Honda ran into about six bison on her way into the Athabaskan village of Nikolai on Wednesday.

Her team was cruising along the narrow trail, sometimes referred to as the Buffalo Chutes or the Buffalo Tunnels, on the north side of the Alaska Range when she first spotted a big, wooly calf and cow. 

The calf saw her at the same time and startled. 

“The calf kinda slipped and did this,” she said, making a gesture with her arms to indicate splayed legs. “It was so cute.”

Farther along, she encountered another four bison at different points along the trail. A herd was introduced to the area in 1965, when 18 bison from Delta Junction were brought in to create a population for a limited hunt. 

Luckily for Honda, the bison never charged. Her dogs, she said, were skittish from a harrowing moose encounter earlier this year. 

“I was afraid, but they don’t care,” she said with a laugh. 

Honda came into the checkpoint around 11:45 a.m. in heavy, warm snow that kept flights into town mostly grounded. She was in 48th place, with just Kailyn Davis behind her on the trail.

Yuka Honda signs in at the snowy checkpoint in Nikolai. Honda says she saw a half dozen bison on her way into the checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Davis also had a bison encounter. She said her dogs immediately started barking and scared the three bison away, but she realized she didn’t know how best to react.

“I probably should have researched that before coming out here,” she joked.

The trail to Nikolai was marked by deep moguls for dozens of miles. They left mushers with achy backs, and an earlier snowless section of trail had bent sled runners caused other technical mishaps. 

“I never want to see a mogul in my life again,” said Gerhardt Thiart, a rookie from South Africa who’s running Mitch Seavey’s puppy team. 

He thought his sled was going to fall apart, but it made it to Nikolai in one piece. He inspected it at the checkpoint.

“I’m going to go through it now and just quick run through the bolts and see that they’re tightened,” he said. 

The bumpy trail also bent one of Apayauq Reitan’s sled runners as she yanked the sled to try to keep it upright. She said it was still running alright. 

Apayauq Reitan checks her sled runners. March 9, 2022 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“One of my runners has bent so I think it’s going a bit crooked but it’s still in one piece,” she said. 

For now, all she could do was swap out the pieces of runner plastic that mushers cover the aluminum sled runners with. 

Matt Failor said the trail wasn’t too much worse than normal except for the moguls. But it did beat his team down enough that he decided to take a 24-hour rest at the checkpoint. 

“I just realized that some of the dogs had a few muscles that a four hour break or five hour break wouldn’t fix that issue,” he said. 

Plus, he said, the checkpoint was pleasant with warm food like burritos served in the school cafeteria. 

Nearby, rookie Julie Ahnen was considering an early 24-hour rest as well. She’d already had to drop three dogs, and had rummaged through a pile of discarded supplies to see if she could find enough food to hold her dogs over for an extra 24-hours. 

Race officials and local volunteers helped keep the welcome warm for mushers. Aside from food in the cafeteria, local volunteers kept firewood freshly chopped around two fire barrels. 

The barrels were rigged up with a funnel and tank on top and a spout near the bottom. The design, dreamed up by a local decades ago, lets people pour water in at the top that comes out steaming hot, sparing mushers the trouble of heating up water themselves. 

Fire barrels in Nikolai help mushers get hot water quickly. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Every few hours resident volunteers zipped on snowmachines to a nearby hole in the ice, where they drew water in a 5-gallon bucket to bring back up to the fire barrel. 

A Nikolai resident clears ice from a hole in the river used to give water to mushers at the checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

People at the checkpoint said they were mostly glad that the Iditarod had returned this year, after keeping the race separate last year due to COVID-19 concerns. 

“I’m feeling okay with it, as long as people get their shots and stuff and they’re actually working,” said John Dennis as he sat on a snowmachine near the fire pits. “It’s a disease that’s going to stay around here. I mean, we got to live with it.”

Residents said one resident of Nikolai died earlier this year from COVID-19, and a child was nearly evacuated because of a severe illness.

Race officials are required to be fully vaccinated and get daily COVID-19 tests along the trail. Mushers must also be fully vaccinated. They were tested before the race start and will all get swabbed again at the next checkpoint, in McGrath.

Brian Ahkiviana said that he’s glad the Iditarod is back and passing through Nikolai. 

“You see a lot of smiling faces,” he said. “Not too sure if there’s people staying at home. I’m pretty sure there are but you know, everybody has their own opinion on these things.”

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