Iditarod teams contend with frigid temperatures and sleep deprivation heading to the coast

a musher putting foot ointment on their dogs outside, the dogs are wearing red coats
Fairbanks musher Josi Thyr applies foot ointment to a dog’s paw in the Galena checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

GALENA – It’ll be a frigid dash to the coast of Alaska for mushers and their teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with a wind chill of nearly 40 below zero at the checkpoint here Saturday morning.

The mushers are bundling up in parkas they haven’t worn for much of the race so far. They’re covering the dogs with jackets, too, and for the males, strap-on furs to protect their exposed nether regions.

The cold means mushers will also need to change what they’re feeding the dogs to help fuel their body heat, said Sebastian Schnuelle, who is the race judge in Galena, at race mile 545, and a former Iditarod musher who won awards for his dog care.

“Now, the meals have to be a lot more fatty just to get the calories in,” Schnuelle said. “Other than that, at this point in the race, the dogs are dialed in.”

furs lying in the snow
Musher Jessica Klejka, who grew up in Bethel, is using furs to protect her male dogs’ genitals in temperatures down to 20-below zero. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

That seemed to be the case for Denali musher Amanda Otto’s team as she prepared to leave Saturday morning. Clad in matching red race jackets, the dogs stood at attention, except for one named Prawn, who stayed curled up on a pad of straw.

“Are you sleeping in?” Otto asked the all-black dog. “Contrary to the way he’s behaving right now, he doesn’t shut up once we get going. He’s my chirper all the way down the trail. We’d never be able to sneak up on anybody.”

“You are many things, but stealthy is not one of them,” she told Prawn, as she coaxed him to stand up.

Otto said she felt good about the dogs having gotten plenty of rest so far. She expected to pass a few teams on some of their next runs.

a musher untangles mittens outside as dogs look on
Musher Amanda Otto untangles her mittens before leaving the Galena checkpoint on Saturday morning. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)
an aerial view of a snowy parking lot and road with straw bales laid out
An aerial view of the Galena checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

After slipping into her parka and some fur mittens, Otto pulled her snow hook, gave the team the command to get moving and they mushed out of the checkpoint and back onto the Yukon River.

Maintaining their speed and keeping the dogs happy and healthy was top of mind for the mushers. Those still here will need every advantage they can muster if they’re going to catch the frontrunners, who were approaching the village of Kaltag midday Saturday.

At the very front was the team of Travis Beals, looking for his first Iditarod championship. Beals had checked off his mandatory eight-hour break in Galena. Mushers can make the stop at any Yukon River checkpoint.

Beals told the Iditarod Insider about adjustments he’d made for the cold.

“I had to put some extra layers on for the first time the whole race,” he said after arriving in Galena on Friday. “The wind was out, but yeah, it was good.”

a musher goes through drop bags
Musher Travis Beals looks through one of his drop bags at the Cripple checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Beals told the Insider that his move to blow through the Cripple checkpoint 120 miles earlier had set him up to be in the lead on the Yukon.

After leaving Galena late Friday, Beals arrived first a little before 6 a.m. Saturday at the next checkpoint, Nulato, where he rested the team for nearly five hours.

Hot on his heels about a half-hour later was five-time champion Dallas Seavey, who appeared to be taking his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River layover in Nulato midday Saturday.

The team of Jessie Holmes arrived in Nulato a few hours later and left in second place after their own nearly five-hour break.

Back in Galena, Schnuelle, the race judge, said he was impressed by how the front-running teams looked.

“They all look good in the front, or they wouldn’t be there,” he said. “It’s not a big group and then a gap. They’re all one after the other, so it’s still wide open.”

Musher Jessie Royer, who has eight top-10 Iditarod finishes, was one who was hoping to catch up. She was down to 10 dogs after having dropped a few earlier and putting booties on her remaining team members before leaving Galena on Saturday.

“We haven’t cut any rest, but yet we’re still going slower than everybody else, and I’m down to fewer dogs, so that’s a little frustrating,” Royer said. “But that’s what I got, so that’s what we’re dealing with.”

a musher puts booties on a dog outside
Musher Jessie Royer puts booties on her dogs before leaving the Galena checkpoint on Saturday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Royer said they were also dealing with the cold.

“A lot more dog care involved,” she said. “And then a lot of clothes for us to wear. So much clothes. Yeah, so much to keep track of.”

For rookie Iditarod musher Josi Thyr, just staying awake had been a challenge. Like Royer, Thyr had switched to a sled earlier in the race that allowed her to sit down, but the flatness of the Yukon River and days of sleep deprivation were lulling her to sleep, she said while heating water in her cooker to make meals for her dogs.

“It’s cold, and you sit down because it’s flat, and then I lean forward on my handlebar, and then I was, like, shutting my eyes. I’m like, ‘No, no, no, can’t do this,’” Thyr said. “So it’s part of the distance mushing hazards. But I don’t really want to lose my team on the river. That’d be a little embarrassing. It’s completely flat and you lose it just from falling asleep.”

a dog team comes down a snowy road
Fairbanks musher Josi Thyr and her team arrive at the Galena checkpoint on Saturday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)
a portrait of a man outside

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

Previous articleMayhem, ‘the sweetest girl on the team’
Next articleAlaska Children’s Trust Anchorage mayoral candidate forum | Addressing Alaskans