I’m in the lead again! I’ve beaten everyone to Unalakleet and my average speed was about 150 miles an hour.
I actually got to cross two things off my Bucket List in one trip!
Flying in to Unalakleet was breathtaking. There were trees- lots and lots of trees and then we ended up on the Bering Sea! Out pilot Scott was amazing! He flew us low so that we could actually follow the trail! Not only that, we got to see four or five teams on the trail! Bucket List Check #1. I’ve always seen Jeff Schultz’s photos of teams on the trail taken while flying over the trail. It was so cool!!! It really brought home just how small the teams when compared to the great vastness of Alaska. The trail looks like a ribbon running through the land pointing the way to Nome. We flew over the village and checkpoint of Kaltag and over Old Woman Cabin. This cabin has a great role in the folklore of the Iditarod and is where mushers leave offerings of foods to the Spirit of the Old Woman so that she doesn’t follow them down the trail sending them bad luck.
We also flew with a dog! Bucket List Check #2. He really did well in the plane and really did fall right to sleep!
Unalakleet is like the big city compared to where I’ve been the last few days! We landed on a paved runway and there is a stop sign! The first think I did upon landing, was walk out to take a picture of the Bering Sea. The oceans near me don’t freeze so it was sort of surreal to see the sea ice! Unalakleet is a hub, so there are a lot of people in town for the race. Some are volunteers here at Unalakleet and some are here on their way passing through to another checkpoint further up the trail. A few people who were supposed to fly up toward Elim got grounded here due to weather in Elim.
The checkpoint is located in a building at the back of the post office. The mushers come in on the slough (pronounced like “slew”) behind the buildings and on the opposite coast from the sea. As the tracker showed the mushers getting closer and closer, the crowd grew and grew! There are lots of special people here to greet the mushers! Aliy’s dad and handlers are here. Karin Hendrickson’s mom is here. And Ben Harper, fresh off his second place Junior Iditarod run is here to cheer on Ray Redington, Jr. Can you imagine how glad the mushers will be to see them? It’s been a long race so far and I know it will be great to see a familiar face! It’s pretty shocking to see so many people! Especially after being in such small towns lately! There must be close to a hundred people here! It was really neat to see the native people dressed in their traditional parkas with all their fur ruffs and trims! While I waited, I got to chat with several of the local teachers… it constantly amazes me how the teachers seem to gravitate towards each other!
We got to see Aliy Zirkle arrive first. You could see her coming for a long way! She made a sweeping turn into the checkpoint area where they had built up walls to help cut down the wind. The walls are called a berm. By arriving first, Aily won the First to the Gold Coast award which is a trophy and some gold. It was awarded to her at the checkpoint, but will be given to her again at the Finishers’ Banquet in Nome.
Since then three others have joined her and are hot on her heels. Here’s a little tidbit for you…in sixteen of the last twenty races, the first musher to Unalakleet has gone on to win the race! But get this – one of the four who hasn’t? Aily Zirkle. It’s going to be an interesting few days watching the strategies start to play out. Now that the twenty-four and the Yukon River eight hour rests are finished, we can get a much better idea of who is actually winning! Be sure to keep watching those run times!