Iditarod mushers care for dogs, sleep, eat and repeat during their 24-hour breaks

a musher walks a dog on a leash
Musher Pete Kaiser walks one of his dogs, Harper, during the team’s 24-hour rest in Takotna during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

TAKOTNA – Take care of the dogs, sleep, eat and repeat. That’s the mantra for mushers on their 24-hour breaks during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The 24’s, as they’re called, are mandatory and a welcome reset for the weary teams. They can be taken at any checkpoint, although it makes the most sense somewhere near the middle of the race. Many Iditarod mushers opt to take their 24 in this village of about 50 people, at race mile 329, due to the outsized amenities it provides.

Number one is the legendary food: Hamburgers, soup, stew, enchiladas, pancakes, sausage, scrambled eggs and a revolving variety of homemade pies are all on the menu. The pies alone include cherry, banana cream, apple and more.

Plus, there’s plenty of room inside to sleep and dry clothes and a wood-fired boiler outside near the dog lot providing hot water.

“It’s been said a lot of times before, but the better I can take care of myself, the better I can take care of the dogs,” Bethel musher Pete Kaiser said Wednesday while on his 24-hour break in Takotna. “There’s also hot water for the dogs ready to go, so that saves a lot of time not having to melt snow.”

dogs under blankets
Dogs in musher Amanda Otto’s team rest in Takotna on a 24-hour break. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Kaiser is the 2019 Iditarod champion, running the race this year for the 15th time. Except for two years the village wasn’t a checkpoint due to COVID-19 concerns, he’s always taken his 24 in Takotna.

Some other frontrunners decided to take their 24-hour breaks farther down the trail, in what are essentially camps, sleeping in tents in some cases and eating frozen or freeze-dried food from their drop bags.

“It’s an efficiency thing for me,” Kaiser said. “I feel like I can be more efficient with my time here than other places.”

Nearly 20 teams were resting here Wednesday afternoon, the dogs lined out in parallel, each on a bed of straw, most covered in small fleece blankets.

About halfway through his 24, Kaiser was taking specific dogs from his team on short walks, to prevent stiffness and to get a look at how they were moving. He rubbed their sore muscles and applied foot ointment.

a musher rubs a dogs foot outside in the snow
Musher Pete Kaiser rubs the foot of his dog Harper. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)
a snowy dog lot
Dog teams bedded down in Takotna, where many mushers were taking their mandatory 24-hour rest. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

At the other end of the dog yard, fellow Iditarod veteran Jessie Royer, running her 21st Iditarod, was moving gear from the green sled she used in the first part of the race to a new, purple sled she had sent to Takotna that’ll allow her to sit down.

“I pretty much don’t 24 anywhere else,” Royer said. “I mean, I love it here. It’s where I can get the best rest for me and the dogs, and you know, I can take better care of the dogs if I’m rested.”

a musher looks through sled bags
Musher Jessie Royer moves her gear to a spare sled in Takotna. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

That dog care includes, of course, feeding the dogs at regular intervals, often every four hours or so, just like out on the trail. In another corner of the dog yard, another Iditarod veteran, Mats Pettersson, was ladling a blend of hot water, kibble, beef, salmon and chicken from a cooler into bowls.

Pettersson wore a wool sweater with the image of running sled dogs knitted into it. He had a small cut on the bridge of his nose from earlier in the race, when he hit a tree trying to navigate the infamous downhill switchbacks on the Happy River Steps.

“The tree won,” he said.

Pettersson was coaxing a couple of the dogs to eat by pushing the bowls toward their noses. Most lapped up the soupy mixture. A few were wolfing it down.

“The sound of music, dogs eating,” he said. “When you hear that sound, then you know it’s working. Reloading energy and so on.”

Pettersson said he knows which dogs like which different kinds of meat, so he’ll try to scoop up a piece of beef for one dog or a chunk of salmon for another.

“This is lovely,” he said. “This is what we like.”

a musher sorts through a sled bag
Musher Mats Pettersson looks for snacks to feed his dogs while on a 24-hour break in Takotna. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Pettersson lives in Sweden, a factor in his decision to take his 24-hour rest in Takotna.

Some mushers send drop bags loaded for potential 24’s to multiple checkpoints, to give themselves options depending on how the race is going. So, if they have extra supplies that go to a checkpoint where they don’t end up taking 24, the unused stuff gets shipped back to them.

That’s not an option for Pettersson, who heads back overseas after the race. So he picks one place — friendly little Takotna — to send those extra supplies.

“I need to pack (for) where I’m going to stay the 24,” he said. “For the other guys, you know, it’s different, they live maybe in the area. But this has to do with return drop bags and stuff like that after the race. I’m not here when they’re going back.”

dogs sleep under blankets
Dogs in Gabe Dunham’s team sleep in the Takotna checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)
a dog looks around
A dog in Gabe Dunham’s team looks around the dog yard in the Takotna. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Rookie Iditarod musher Benjamin Good, from Fairbanks, was one who gave himself options for his 24 by sending those extra supplies to three different checkpoints: Nikolai, McGrath and Takotna.

Good’s team mushed into Takotna in the late afternoon Wednesday. He bedded down the dogs and fed them, then ate a burger, salad and potato salad in a cozy house near the dog lot where other mushers were eating and sleeping.

Good said his decision to 24 in Takotna was based in part on advice and looking at what some successful Iditarod mushers had done in the past. But the main factor was that the day before, Good’s dogs had “really started to click,” he said, and a few miles before McGrath he decided they looked good and decided to push on to Takotna.

“I’ve always heard about the pies, and pie is one of my favorite foods, so that was a clear draw,” Good said. “I told my son, ‘If I 24 in Nikolai, it means I’m having problems. If I 24 in McGrath, eh, that’s OK. If I 24 in Takotna, I’m doing pretty good,’ like that’s my best case.”

a musher gets hot water from a bucket
Rookie Iditarod musher Benjamin Good scoops out hot water for his dogs in Takotna. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The woman behind the pies and the majority of the cooking this year is the Takotna school’s principal and teacher, Tabatha Meglitsch, a 38-year resident of the community.

“I’m always happy that people are comfortable here,” Meglitsch said. “We do our very best to provide multiple services. The food’s just one. It’s a big one.”

Meglitsch said her mother, Nell Huffman, also helped make the pies and is one of the longtime pie makers in the community. There had been two others, Meglitsch said, but one died and the other moved away.

Meglitsch was baking pies at the checkpoint, she said, while Huffman was baking them at home and having her husband, Terry, deliver them.

“It’s nice, because I run out of one type and suddenly they’re there again,” Meglitsch said.

As for Meglitsch herself, she said her favorite is the banana cream pie.

“So, I made two of those last night, and I hope they got eaten,” she said, laughing.

Mushers who took their 24-hour stops in Takotna started departing the village overnight — well fed and well rested. First out was Travis Beals at nearly 11 p.m. Wednesday followed by defending champion Ryan Redington, Kaiser and Matt Hall. They chased the teams who had blown through the checkpoint, opting to take their long stops further down the trail.

a dog team gets bootied put on in the dark
Musher Ryan Redington puts booties on his dogs before leaving Takotna at the end of his 24-hour rest. (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 brewers sue state alcohol board on entertainment rules
Next articleMeg, who loves to kiss