Iditarod mushers look forward to fast river trail, ready to put the miles of moguls behind them

A man in a jacket
Richie Diehl pulls into Ruby in fifth place. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

RUBY — The sun was on a lot of mushers’ minds as they tended to their teams in the tiny Athabascan village of Ruby on Friday, near race mile 500.

Dog teams rested on piles of straw in rows in a plowed off parking lot nestled between a church and the community center. Mushers Jessie Holmes and Michelle Phillips traded observations about their dogs’ appetites as they spooned out food for their teams and repacked sleds.

“Yeah, they look awesome!” said Phillips.

“The key thing is they’ve been eatin’ like crazy,” said Holmes.

Holmes was the fourth musher into the checkpoint at Ruby on Friday while Phillips was 11th.

Both had settled in to rest their teams during the warmest part of the day.

A musher surrounded by dogs
Michelle Phillips and her dog team rest in Ruby. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Temperatures reached into the upper 20s, and by the afternoon many mushers had peeled off their hats and gloves. Those who had them wore sunglasses. Phillips said warm weather has been a theme of this year’s race.

“It’s been a hot race, which I found kind of hard — like just trying to feed differently and just not used to being so warm,” said Phillips. “I’m getting trench foot from my feet sweating.”

Ruby is the first checkpoint she’d stopped in for about 150 miles. Getting wet socks off and letting her feet air out was a high priority, she said.

Jessie Holmes in a sunny dog yard in Ruby. He was the 4th team to arrive. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Holmes said he was happy his team got to take its eight-hour stop under the warm sun. While the temperature was warm for racing, it was ideal for resting, he said.

“It’s getting real sunny out,” he said. “I’m so thankful that the timing worked out that I can do my eight here in the heat of the day. The dogs benefit from it, they can lay out in the sun and really relax. The sun just kind of warms up their muscles.”

Holmes was busy sorting through his sled. He had to decide what gear he didn’t need for the upcoming trail down the flat Yukon River, where speed is essential. Holmes said he’d likely leave an extra set of boots behind, plus a set of 15 spare dog harnesses.

“I’m having a good race, so I’ve gotta stop being such a packrat right now,” he said. “I’m so hung up from living out in the bush of like always having extra everything in case things go wrong, you know.”

He had also made it to Ruby with all 14 of his dogs, sending none home early. That was a pre-race goal, he said. But, he was thinking about changing his strategy because of the expected fast trail ahead. He didn’t need the power of 14 dogs, and more dogs also means more time doing dog chores.

He said he planned to leave a couple of dogs in Ruby. The dogs and any abandoned gear will get flown out.

Jessie Holmes is the only top musher who still had a 14-dog team when he arrived in Ruby Friday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Nearby, Richie Diehl’s team was curled up in the shade in a quiet spot behind the main dog yard. He’s running 11 dogs and said he’s excited to finally get on the river, which is more similar to the relatively flat training grounds at his home in Aniak in Western Alaska.

“I always like getting on the river. And I know that it can throw a lot of different things, you know, with wind and everything. But I think it’ll be good to get out there,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with the moguls from the start, and it’ll be nice to be on the river.”

Young Richie Diehl fans wait for his arrival (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Jessie Holmes watches Aaron Burmeister pull into Ruby. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Fellow Y-K Delta musher Pete Kaiser also stopped to rest in Ruby Friday afternoon. He stood at the back of the dog yard sizing up the other teams.

Kaiser, the 2019 Iditarod champion, is running near the front of the pack this year, but not with the very top teams. At least not yet. He said he talked with Diehl at Ruby though, and he likes Diehl’s chances. 

“He’s definitely in a good spot and has a good team and, you know, there’s a long way to go in this race,” he said.

And now that teams are on the Yukon River, Kaiser said, the real race is about to begin. 

Two mushers talk
Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl talk at the Ruby checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Richie Diehl shows off the sheefish from Kotzebue that he brought along for dogs. He was warming up a packaged burrito in the water for himself. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Aaron Burmeister arrived seventh in Ruby. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A sled dog team on a sunny day
Mushers Ryan Redington, Jessie Holmes and Hugh Neff in the dog lot at Ruby. (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.