Top Iditarod teams swap laughs and stories during long rest at remote Cripple checkpoint

A man talks excitedly
Hugh Neff in Cripple Thursday tells a story about the neon green sunglasses he brought on the trail. A fan offered him the sunglasses on Saturday during the ceremonial start in Anchorage after he commented on them from his sled. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

CRIPPLE — Veteran musher Hugh Neff was cheerful Thursday afternoon as he checked on his dogs during his 24-hour rest at the remote camp checkpoint here.

Surrounded by spruce trees that sheltered mushers from a northwest wind, Neff said he enjoyed the camaraderie and conversation of the other mushers also stopped: Brent Sass, Ryan Redington and father-son duo Mitch and Dallas Seavey. But Neff said he let them do most of the talking. 

“I know with mushers, usually what’s coming out of their mouths is half-truths and soliloquies,” he said with a smile.

The five top mushers who overlapped in Cripple all described friendly conversation in the plywood mushers’ bunkhouse, reminiscing about old races and bragging about their dogs. Bags under mushers’ eyes had subsided somewhat and they happily chatted with a few visiting reporters. 

Their 24-hour stop punctuated four straight days of racing.

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A man outside
Mitch Seavey pauses in between chores with his dogs. Despite a cut near his left eye from an overturned sled earlier in the race, Seavey says his body feels better than it has in years. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Even with the light-hearted atmosphere, mushers were still working diligently to keep their dogs in top shape — massaging sore muscles and dishing out bowls of meaty broth. 

“These guys here are world-class mushers, they’re all doing the same thing. They’re running their teams to the best their teams can,” said Ryan Redington as he prepared a meal for his dogs after a six-hour nap. “I intend to do the same.”

So far, he said, his dogs were eating well and didn’t have any serious injuries he was concerned with. He looked forward to making it to Unalakleet, almost 300 more miles down the trail. He has family there.

A remote camp site
The remote checkpoint of Cripple is made up of several plywood buildings and some Arctic Oven tents that are shipped in for the Iditarod. That made it an attractive place for some mushers to take their 24-hour rests, since it is away from crowds and other distractions. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Dog team in remote snowy Alaska
A dog team on the trail from Ophir to Cripple. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Brent Sass, the first to leave the Cripple checkpoint late Thursday afternoon, said he was happy with how his team was running, but had one minor concern. 

“They could be eating a little better,” he said. “They’re eating enough and they’re eating their food, but I’d like to see a team get up and chow down.”

Sass said he’s focused on running his own race, and pointed to a tattoo on his forearm that reminds him to do just that. Sass said he’s learned his lessons from prior Iditarods, when he went too hard on the first two-thirds of the trail. 

“I feel like that is a thing of the past. I have no anxiety about that at all,” he said.

A tattoo says: Run Your Own Race
Brent Sass tattooed a mantra onto his forearm to remind him not to get pulled into his competitors’ tactics. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A musher and his dogs
Brent Sass at the Cripple checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Nearby Dallas Seavey also had some worries about his dogs. Because of the deep snow and a minor illness running through his team, he said, he’d been carrying dogs in a tow sled, which drags behind the sled he steers. It’s a way to rest the dogs while going down the trail, like a bench for a basketball team. 

“We’ve definitely been off our normal pace,” he said. “I think that if we get over this (illness), they’ll be ready to rock and roll. This is still one heck of a dog team.”

He spent a lot of the daylong break giving the team some extra attention. 

“I did get some sleep — maybe not as much as I would generally like on the 24,” he said. “Some people can really snore out here.” 

A man looks upset
Dallas Seavey said he’s been taking an extra hour of rest at each stop throughout the race due to an illness going through his team, and tough, snowy conditions. He said he’s had to give his dogs some extra attention at the stop in Cripple. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Seavey said this year’s race, where he’s vying for a record-setting 6th Iditarod win, could be his last. 

He said that hasn’t caused any added pressure.

“I want this race to be a fun one,” he said. “And when we walk away from it, I don’t want to be frustrated or think that we should have done things differently.”

A man leaves a plywood house
Brent Sass leaves the mushers cabin to pack up his sled for his departure from Cripple, scheduled for around 5 p.m. on Thursday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A sign says: Do Not Enter ITC + Musher Bubby Only :)
The Iditarod Trail Committee cabin in Cripple, where a strict COVID protocol was enforced. Outsiders were not allowed inside the buildings unless they were part of the “Iditarod Bubble” which required daily antigen testing (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A musher near his dogs
Mitch Seavey said he’s happy with how his dogs – most of whom are 3-year-olds – have been running this year. (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.