UNALAKLEET — Last year, when musher Pete Kaiser scratched from the 2021 Iditarod race, a pilot named Jonathan Hanson flew him back home to Bethel.
This year, the two met again in Hanson’s hometown of Unalakleet, as Kaiser mushed into the coastal Iñupiat community Sunday afternoon.
“You’re the guy that flew me last year, right?” Kaiser asked.
“Yeah,” Hanson said. “I was the one that flew you home from McGrath.”
This year, instead of taking Kaiser home, Hanson greeted the mushers with a couple warm pizzas.
“We get orders from all over the world,” Hanson said. “And for most of the mushers that have come in, we’ve delivered pizzas to them down here on the ice.”
Hanson said his parents’ restaurant Peace on Earth has been delivering pizzas to the checkpoint for 25 years. They get Iditarod-related orders from all over the country, and even the world. Just the other day, they got a pizza order in from Abu Dhabi, he said — a family wanting to give thanks to the crew running the Iditarod livestream online.
Musher Chad Stoddard was delighted to sit down and eat a sausage and bacon pizza that his mom ordered for him from a few thousand miles away in Washington state.
As he took his first bite, he read her message out loud, “It says, Chad Stoddard, we are proud of you. We love you. You’re doing great. Nome wasn’t built in a day, right?”
Stoddard was last year’s Iditarod Rookie of the Year. But the trail was a shortened out-and-back course that didn’t go through many rural communities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been really neat to see all the villages, and experiencing this part of the trail that I did not get to see last year has been really fun,” he said.
On a hill overlooking the checkpoint, Stanton Paniptchuk sat on his ATV Sunday afternoon. He visited with friends and family as they watched the mushers come in.
“I don’t think I’ve missed a race since 1973,” he said “I don’t remember how many days, but we didn’t think that they’d make it here. And it was cool. The whole town came out. The whole town. Even the elders. They all went down below the sea and waited for them. That was fun.”
After some rest, Iñupiaq musher Ryan Redington walked back to his sled, getting ready to leave the checkpoint and head up the Bering Sea coast.
“Nice to be in Eskimo country!” he said.
He said his mother was born and raised in Unalakleet, and it’s been nice to visit with the community.
“I just got a lot on my mind right now,” he said. “This race can be very tough and that’s just part of the game, you know? Yeah, just like everybody else, trying to do one run at a time.”
As he fed his dogs chicken, horse and beef, Kaiser walked by.
“Icy enough for you?” Redington called out to him.
“Just like home,” Kaiser said.
Mushers here said they’re exhausted at this point in the race, with just 260 miles or so to go, but they pulled together enough focus and energy to fix sleds, care for their dogs and decide if anyone had to go home.
Michelle Phillips was considering the health of one of her dogs who wasn’t eating or drinking as well as the others. She ultimately left the checkpoint with one less dog, deciding to send it home.
Stuart Nelson, chief veterinarian for the race, said it can be a tough call to make.
“It’s kind of like, you know, one of your friends that you don’t want to have them not be on the trip,” he said. “But sometimes a decision has to be made and it can be emotional for sure.”
When assessing the health of dogs in the race, Nelson said they use an acronym: HAWL. H stands for hydration and heart rate and rhythm, A for appetite and attitude, W for weight and L is for lungs.
Nelson said he’s seen fewer dogs returned to Anchorage this year than in previous years.
Nearby, Dan Kaduce was waking up his dog team like he would a child for school.
‘Time to go to school,” he said. “You’re gonna miss the bus.”
They started opening their eyes slowly and standing as Kaduce massaged their bodies awake.
“Usually at home, they’d be going bananas to go, but here, this is what you get,” he said.
As the sun set here on the Norton Sound Sunday evening, nine mushers left within the span of about 2 and a half hours — onward to Nome.
As he prepared to go, Kaiser looked ahead.
“I just wanna get there — doesn’t matter what time it is,” he said.