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Iron Dog begins: 2,000 miles through frozen Alaska via snowmobile

February 20, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • One-half of the Todd Minnick/Nick Olstad team heads toward Skwentna, Alaska, shortly after the start of the annual Iron Dog snowmachine race.
One-half of the Todd Minnick/Nick Olstad team heads toward Skwentna, Alaska,… (Robert DeBerry / Mat-Su…)

Reporting from Seattle — The Iron Dog has begun. Yes, there is Alaska’s world-famous Iditarod race that runs each year from Anchorage to Nome, but those are mere dogs compared with this annual test of men, metal, ice and lunacy.

The world’s longest and most grueling snowmobile race got under way over the weekend in the town of Big Lake, near Wasilla. It is scheduled to proceed more than 2,000 miles across frozen lakes, hills, forests and tundra to Nome and then on to a finish in Fairbanks, nearly a week after the start.

This is the race that made former Gov. Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd, a four-time winner, a fixture on the hunk chart. (He’s running again this year, with seven-time champion Scott Davis on Team 11). It's also the race that annually makes those not from Alaska scratch their heads about why the teams don’t simply forfeit the glory and take refuge in the equally celebrated bars of Nome.

"There's really nothing else like it in the world," race director Kevin Kastner told the Los Angeles Times on Monday, as teams from as far away as Idaho and Maine were making their way toward Galena at speeds of up to 90 mph.

"The terrain is so remote and so rugged, and the conditions can be so varying: These guys can experience anything from open water to minus 50-degree temperatures. They're in the middle of nowhere, there's no parts stores nearby. It's man and machine takes on Mother Nature."

Man, and a few women, of course.

There was widespread worry before the start of this year's race Sunday. By the middle of last week, unseasonably warm temperatures had left Big Lake on the slushy side and put 18 inches of water on the start line, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

But then the temperature dropped, and for the 31 pro-class teams registered, the start went not swimmingly, fortunately, but "fantastic," Kastner said.

Team 20’s Jana Peterson-Pevan and Carl Swenson hit a tree, but managed to repair the damage and keep going. Team 25, piloted by Race Price and Eric Watson, scratched with mechanical failure.

The leaders by a full 10 minutes going into Monday morning were Team 39, Tyler Aklestad and Aaron Loyer, who race organizers on their website said "made a dramatic comeback after a brief swim and a six-hour layover."

Live streaming of some key points in the race was being provided by Anchorage’s KTUU television. Race organizers were providing GPS position updates on all the teams. And last but not least, photos of Todd Palin and son Trig were being displayed on Sarah Palin's Facebook update. "Go dogs! Godspeed!" she cheered.

Front-runners are expected to pull their snowmobiles -- or snowmachines -- into Nome by Tuesday night, where they’ll take a mandatory pit stop that lasts an average of 36 hours, much of which could be spent throwing wrenches into the machines to keep them running.

Then there’s a Thursday morning restart, another brief hold in Tanana on Friday, and on to the big finish party in Fairbanks on Saturday -- for those who make it.

"Today, you’ll start seeing some attrition," Kastner said. "Some of the back of the pack will start dropping out."

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