Iditarod back-of-the-pack mushers and their dogs are learning on the fly

a woman gazes at her sled dog
Musher Erin Altemus talks to one of her dogs at the McGrath checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

While the frontrunning sled dog teams in this year’s Iditarod raced ahead Wednesday, a contingent of mushers brought up the rear.

Some of those at the back of the pack are veteran mushers running slower than they had expected. Others were taking their mandatory 24-hour rests earlier in the race, with plans to leapfrog teams ahead of them. Many are rookies taking their time, just hoping to finish the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

Rookie Joshua Robbins, from Willow, is in that latter category. Robbins was at the very back, in the Red Lantern position, about 100 miles behind the race leader Dallas Seavey on Wednesday.

Robbins was dragging a bag of trash across the dog yard in Nikolai early Wednesday while his dogs slept, curled up on piles of straw.

“I don’t even want to use the word ‘race,’ because that’s not what I’m here for,” Robbins said. “We’re really just kind of picking away at this and learning how this all goes.”

“My training is never, was never, this hard,” he added.

a musher with a headlamp outside
Musher Joshua Robbins was in the Red Lantern position in Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Not long after leaving the Rohn checkpoint on his way to Nikolai, Robbins’ sled hit a stump or a log, ripping off the drag mat he stands on to slow down the team, he said.

“The sled was kind of up, in the air, sideways, and I’m running as best as I can, there was like just enough traction on the ground,” Robbins said. “Yeah, it was like, ‘This is wild,’ how we just left the checkpoint. Like, ‘This is off to a terrible start.’”

Robbins used some cord to tie his drag mat back on.

“It’s definitely not straight,” he said, “but there’s a drag mat there.”

a musher carries a bucket of water outside
Musher Sean Williams carries a bucket of water in McGrath while on a break during the Iditarod. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Robbins is a true rookie, meaning he hasn’t mushed the race and scratched before. But Chugiak musher Sean Williams is a rookie who’s run most of the Iditarod Trail before. Williams made it within about 70 miles of Nome in the 2022 race but scratched when he accepted help from a snowmachine after getting caught in a dangerous storm outside of the White Mountain checkpoint.

Williams was feeding his dogs in McGrath and preparing to hit the trail again a little before noon Wednesday.

It was helpful to have already seen some of the most treacherous sections of trail, Williams said.

“Two years ago I was white-knuckle, screaming all the way through the Farewell Burn and all that, and this time I just drove the sled like another day,” he said. “I mean, it was still just as technical, but it’s like anything, you see it, you know what to expect more.”

This year, he said, his run was quieter. 

“I was too tired. I don’t think there was any screaming, just internally, you know?” Williams said, laughing.

Williams said he wasn’t even paying attention to what place he was in.

“I know the obvious people in front. After that, I really have no idea to be honest with you,” he said. “Right now, I still have 15 dogs, they’re all happy. I’m just trying to get them to where they’re all eating and drinking a lot. You know, we stop a lot, briefly, on the trail, and I just kind of pet ’em.”

Williams said his dogs are getting more excitable as the race goes on.

“They’re starting to be a little crazy,” he said. “They’re like jumping and – we’re not going any faster – but they’re like jumping and screaming every time I stop, so it’s becoming more fun as we just set that pattern. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Even if Williams didn’t know it or care, he was in 25th place midday Wednesday, one spot ahead of Deke Naaktgeboren, a three-time Iditarod finisher from Fairbanks.

a musher puts booties on a dog outside
Musher Deke Naaktgeboren puts booties on his dogs’ feet before leaving McGrath on Wednesday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Naaktgeboren admitted he had hoped to be running a few positions higher.

“Oh, we were hoping we’d be a little bit more up in, you know, maybe like the middle of the pack,” Naaktgeboren said. 

But Naaktgeboren said there was plenty of race to come – about 700 miles from McGrath – and he was happy that his team had gelled during the first roughly 300 miles.

“The first run or the first two runs, you know, one dog’s jumping in the snowbank, the other dog’s looking over its shoulder, the other dog’s, you know, like arguing with its neighbor, and so on and so forth. One dog’s pulling, one dog’s not,” he said. “When the team starts coming together, it looks more like a 14-valve engine, and all the pistons are going in unison, so it’s getting more and more and more like that. And when that happens, it’s what’s so beautiful in mushing.”

Those 14 pistons, of course, refer to Naaktgeboren’s dogs, and that’s the number he started with, even though the Iditarod returned to a 16-dog maximum this year. And that’s the case for many of the back-of-the-pack mushers, because they often have fewer dogs to choose from in their smaller kennels.

But for Naaktgeboren’s Nautique Sky Kennel, which had enough dogs to field two teams in this year’s Yukon Quest Alaska 300, the decision to bring only 14 on the Iditarod was based on wanting to give himself more time to take care of fewer dogs.

three dogs rest on straw
Two dogs on the team of Deke Naaktgeboren rest, while one looks around, in the McGrath checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Also about to leave McGrath on Wednesday, rookie Erin Altemus from Minnesota said she was trying to manage her dogs’ mental state, saying they were “at the edge.”

“My very best leader is not wanting to lead, which I’ve never seen him balk in a race before, so that’s odd,” Altemus said. “So I was doing a lot of switching around of leaders. You see dogs just start funny behaviors this far into a race.”

a smiling musher in a red hat
Musher Erin Altemus talks to reporters at the McGrath checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Leaning on her sled, Altemus said she was tired and feeling a little goofy herself.

“You always think, you know, watching the stats and everything on Iditarod that the people at the back of the pack are sleeping a lot and having a great time and talking to each other and talking in the checkpoints,” she said. “Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not true.”

Altemus betrayed that statement by following it with a good laugh. Despite her sleep deprivation and general suffering, she planned to continue after a long break in McGrath.

sled dogs in red jackets
Dogs on Jason Mackey’s team watch the musher during a break in McGrath. (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

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