On Yukon River, Iditarod teams recuperate from early bruises and strategize big moves

A dog team runs through the snow
Hunter Keefe’s team approaches Grayling along the Yukon River. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Update, Saturday: Brent Sass has dropped out of this year’s Iditarod. More details here.

Original story:

GRAYLING — When Jessie Holmes arrived at the checkpoint in Grayling Friday afternoon, he was all business. He grabbed his drop bags, pulled out some frozen meat for his dogs and a few other supplies for himself and packed them in his sled. 

And, he had a request for the official race checker. 

“Do you mind if I take a picture of that real quick?” he said, pointing to the clipboard. 

He pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the race standings — which teams were in Grayling, when they got here and who had already left. 

There was just one team on the trail ahead: reigning champion Brent Sass.

And Holmes was ready to try to catch him. Holmes finished third last year when Sass won. He said the key to winning is simple. 

“Manage your dog team,” he said. “I had a few issues that I didn’t catch onto at first, so just really having to take care of that more than my desire to race.”

A dog team runs down a hill
Jessie Holmes leaves Grayling at 2:47 p.m. in second place. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Several top teams in the Iditarod face the delicate balance of putting themselves in a good position to climb up the rankings without pushing their dogs too hard and slowing down in the last few hundred miles. 

Matthew Failor is racing just behind the very front of the pack, and he’s trying to stay there, he said. If teams do slow down, that second group will be right there to leapfrog them.

“We understand we’re not at the front, but we’re kinda trying to stay close,” he said.

Mushers on the Yukon had a boost from the cooler temperatures, which topped out around 20 degrees instead of the mid-30s that mushers faced earlier in the race. In the cold, teams at the top of the field have sped up from 6 or 7 mph during the warm days to, now, 8, 9 or even 10 mph down the Yukon. 

A dog team on a frozen river with three kids watching
Children in Grayling watch a dog team depart. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The river trail isn’t only fast — it’s also more straightforward. Mushers don’t have to steer their sleds around corners or slow the team down hills. Kelly Maixner said that’s let his sore back get some rest. 

“Oh it was nice because I could sit down,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do much sitting down, it’s been kinda a rough trail.”

The vibe in the dog yard in Grayling was collegial. There’s some lighthearted trash talking between Maixner and Failor. They had pulled in within an hour of each other.

“That’s what I was thinking about when he passed me, ‘Matt Failor’s an idiot,’” said Maixner with a laugh. 

Failor wasn’t tempted though. 

“Kelly Maixner is a gentleman and a scholar,” he said. “He’s one of the nicest guys on the trail and he even gave me Fig Newtons in passing.”

The friendly atmosphere continues as local school children gather around the dog yard to ask questions to the mushers. The checkpoints on the southern route of the Iditarod — Grayling included — haven’t seen the race come through since 2019, and the town was excited.

A person in an orange parka dishes out things from a blue cooler as a bunch of people sit nearby
Kelly Maixner feeds his dogs in front of a crowd of Grayling residents. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Failor and other mushers were gaming out how to keep their positions and make a move on those in front. Failor said the basic strategy is simple: run longer or rest shorter. 

Going faster isn’t preferable since going too fast can cause muscle injuries on dogs, mushers say.

“The trails been so fast I’ve been on the brake most of the time,” Failor said. 

2019 champion Pete Kaiser was hopeful he could gain back some time on the frontrunners. Now, more than halfway into the trail, the dogs are burning calories faster and more efficiently than before, and mushers say this is where the thousands of miles of training comes in. But Kaiser said it was still too early to make a push by cutting rest or making an extra long run. 

“We’ll see where we’re at in Kaltag and how far people are ahead of us and try to make the best game-time decision, if we have that opportunity,” he said. 

Ryan Redington was planning a similar strategy. He left Grayling shortly before Kaiser, at 6:25 p.m. Friday. Redington said it’ll be tough to catch Holmes and Sass. He saw only one real possibility of getting ahead of them.

“I’m just hoping they goof each other up, push each other a little too much,” he said.

A person passes a plastic cupcake to a musher in a baseball hat
A Grayling resident hands a Reese’s peanut butter cupcake to Ryan Redington before he departs. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Still, he was happy with where he was at. He was running within a few minutes of Kaiser and Richie Diehl. They’re three of the four Alaska Native mushers in the field. He said Kaiser and Diehl have taught him a lot throughout the race. He said, right now, he doesn’t feel like competitors, just friends. 

At some point, he’ll try to make his move on them, though, to try to finish at the top in Nome, but ultimately it’ll be down to the dogs. 

“I’m just putting duct tape on my mouth and try to let the dogs do their thing,” he said. 

A musher pulls a sled around a chunk of ice
Nic Petit guides his sled around a broken section of ice on the Yukon River approaching Grayling around 5:30 p.m. Friday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Bowls of dog food mixed with meat
Eddie Burke Jr. feeds his dogs bowls of meat mixed with kibble. He said normally he waits an hour or so after a run to feed his dogs so that they have a good appetite. But on they’ve been eating voraciously so he fed them immediately after they pulled into the checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A musher scoops up potatoes from a plate
Ryan Redington has a quick last meal of mashed potatoes before departing Grayling. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A dog team runs on a flat trail
Pete Kaiser approaches Grayling at 6:53 p.m. Friday in 8th place. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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