The remote village of Nikolai was my first Iditarod checkpoint experience. I remember anxiously waiting with the volunteers, veterinarians, and villagers as the first musher turned the bend and came up the frozen Kuskokwim River to the checkpoint. It was Nicolas Petit!
He was so surprised to find out he was first in, and it really struck me how isolated a musher can be on the trail. He has no phone, GPS, or spreadsheet to tell him where he is in the race. I wondered how that affects a musher’s strategy.
Oline, a life-long Nikolai resident, makes a home-made muffin for each musher, and she told me that she looks forward to handing it to the very first musher into the checkpoint each race.
Immediately the villagers grabbed his lead dog necklines and helped lead Nic and his team to his resting space off the river. Another villager brought over straw and yet another brought his drop bags on a sled. What I love about the picture above is the number of vets…4…that are checking Nic’s dogs as they rest. The love and care for each and every sled dog is extraordinary on the Iditarod Trail.
Nic got to work cutting open his straw bags and pulling straw bundles out and dropping them in piles for his dogs along the line. Musher Matt Failor had taught us in a previous lesson this year, that mushers put straw in the dog houses at a kennel for sleeping, so dogs are trained to always lay down and rest along the trail when straw is laid down for them as well. Mushers need dogs to rest exactly when they need them to along the trail.
As Nic laid down straw piles and prepared his cooker for his dog’s meal, another volunteer came over with his clipboard. Nikolai is a formal checkpoint where mandatory gear is checked in each sled. Nic stopped and took the time to go through the checklist:
His dogs looked happy and content as they burrowed into their cozy straw piles and curled up for a nap in the warm sun.
The villagers set aside a room in the schoolhouse for mushers to sleep, and served them breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free while at the checkpoint. The community worked together to help the mushers and their teams have a good rest before heading out to McGrath.