An angry moose and bare ground mark a brutal first quarter for Iditarod teams

a musher and dog team in the snow
Pete Kaiser is the eighth musher into the Nikolai checkpoint on Tuesday during the 2024 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

NIKOLAI — Frontrunners in the 2024 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pulled into the checkpoint here Tuesday morning saying bare ground had torn up the plastic covering their sled runners and slowed their progress at times.

Closer to the village, about a quarter of the way into the 1,000-mile race, fresh snow had fallen overnight, also making for slower going.

But those obstacles were nothing compared to the moose five-time champion Dallas Seavey shot and killed earlier in the race.

After ladling out a soupy mix of kibble and hot water for his eager dogs, Seavey recounted how he’d come upon the moose between the Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints more than 100 miles earlier.

Seavey said he was mushing down a hill and around a blind corner when most of his team passed by the moose. He had to scramble to get his gun, a .357-caliber revolver he keeps in a pouch at the top of his sled bag.

“I didn’t get it out until the moose was all the way to the back of the team. Right about that time, I thought, ‘This thing might just walk right by us.’ I mean, it was touching the dogs,” Seavey said. “And then all of a sudden it just started kicking.”

a musher looks over dogs
Dallas Seavey checks on his dogs while feeding them snacks in Nikolai. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Seavey shot the moose once at first, and the sound of the gunshot startled his dogs, causing them to lurch and pull the sled forward. Then he shot the moose four more times in the head, and it fell, first on his sled, then in the middle of the trail, he said.

One of his dogs, Faloo, had been running in the wheel position, closest to the sled, and got the worst of the kicking, Seavey said. The 5-year-old dog had to be flown from the next checkpoint to Anchorage, where veterinarians were caring for her.

“My understanding is it’s pretty touch and go at this point,” Seavey said. “The first report was that she had a 20% chance.”

Seavey said he was about to make a phone call to find out more about Faloo’s condition and was hoping for good news.

As per race rules, Seavey had been required to gut the moose —  “sloppily,” he said — so that its meat could be salvaged. But he said he wasn’t able to get it off the trail and out of the way of other dog teams coming down the hill and around the same curve. Several other mushers said their teams went up and over the carcass like it was a speed bump.

“So I couldn’t really see it until the last second. My front-end dogs had already leaped over it,” said Mille Porsild, another veteran Iditarod musher in this year’s race. “And then you just hang on as you’re airborne over this moose. It’s kind of very surreal.”

Porsild arrived first in Nikolai, winning a pair of beaded beaver-skin mittens and a beaver skin hat.

a musher and dog team in the snow
Mille Porsild and her team arrive in Nikolai in first place Tuesday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The village on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River is a welcome reprieve after some of the most rugged sections of the race, which has now taken all of the 38 Iditarod teams up and over the Alaska Range and through some of the race’s steepest, windiest turns.

Teams of trotting Alaskan huskies pulling sleds and mushers continued to arrive in Nikolai throughout the day Tuesday.

Porsild said the bare ground past the prior checkpoint, Rohn, had been expected, but the fresh snow closer to the village was a surprise that slowed her team.

“Well, particularly when you’ve been going over dirt and rocks and gravel, then your runners are all torn up, and so you don’t have very good glide, and it’s just slower going,” she said. “I thought the end was gonna be smooth sailing. It wasn’t so smooth, but that’s OK.”

a female musher
Mille Porsild looks toward the dog lot in Nikolai where she will park her team. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Porsild ladled a mixture of kibble and hot water from a steaming, wood-fired boiler into bowls for her dogs, who laid on straw, many of them curled up into balls. Unlike Porsild and fellow Iditarod musher Travis Beals nearby, Seavey opted to feed his dogs before spreading out straw for them to rest on.

That way, Seavey said, the dogs would have a chance to cool off, with temperatures in the mid-20s in Nikolai. They also wouldn’t need to sit up and back down again to rearrange themselves as much, he said.

“I don’t like it when they spend an hour trying to find the last piece of kibble that fell into the straw,” he added.

As another Iditarod racer, Jessie Holmes, checked in and then out of Nikolai, slipping into the lead, Seavey and Beals chatted while continuing with their dog chores.

“How do you fit them all in there?” Beals asked of Seavey’s strategy for carrying dogs in his sled bag that had taken a rest while the others pulled.

“Like Tetris,” Seavey responded.

a vet looks over a dog team
Veterinarian Debby Burnett checks dogs on Mille Porsild’s team. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

Previous articleAlaska will receive $2.6M towards small scale food production
Next articleDevelopments in child care support | Talk of Alaska