Snowy weather grounds Iditarod planes, slows mushers

The McGrath checkpoint has snow and cloudy skies, grounding volunteer and fan planes Tuesday.

MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - Weather delays grounded Iditarod Air Force and tourist planes in McGrath Tuesday, as officials and fans alike waited for the mushers to make their way from Nikolai to the Kuskokwim River checkpoint.

“We’ve got a bunch of pilots sitting here that can’t go anywhere because the weather is not flyable,” said Jodie Guest, head of the logistics team in McGrath. “We have all sorts of missions we’d like to be doing to help the race, but it’s not safe to leave the ground.”

Snow flurries and low visibility kept pilots from transporting volunteers and supplies, farther along the trail, though logistics coordinators say the race will go on.

“The mushers move on,” Guest said. She says the race has enough supplies and volunteers in place currently to have mushers continue five checkpoints past McGrath, to Iditarod. One thing that will be tougher on mushers, is once the trail-breakers make it through, they don’t go back.

“The trail breakers are not going to go back and re-break the trail. That’s done,” said Diana Moroney, a pilot and race volunteer since 1986. “You’ve got what you’ve got. And so the mushers have to break trail. It’s a slower race.”

A race veterinarian charged with tending to dropped dogs waited in the Iditarod Trail Café Tuesday afternoon. Lori Gordon, from New Hampshire, says with other veterinarians stranded in Anchorage, and no dropped dogs yet due to good snow conditions, she’ll move over to handling the checkpoint side of the veterinary checks.

To her luck, a former veterinary volunteer, who finished the Iditasport race in McGrath Tuesday, was approved by race officials to assist her. The veterinarian pushed her bike through deep snow for 24 hours, arriving in McGrath Tuesday. “We didn’t know she was coming,” Gordon said. “It was a pleasant surprise.”

Gordon reiterated that the two wouldn’t have trouble handling the checkpoint, especially if reinforcements could arrive to take over by morning.

Moroney says that at least one time, in 1985, the race stalled at Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass) because pilots couldn’t get dog food to the next check point in time for the racers.

A few years ago, Guest said, the race stalled at Eagle Island because race officials weren’t able to get to the next checkpoint. In that case, mushers could have continued on without race officials, but made the decision to hold up.

The Iditarod’s draw for visitors to Alaska is undisputed, and it shows in the lodges and checkpoints along the trail. In McGrath Tuesday morning, groups of visitors were also grounded as low visibility made it unsafe for planes to fly them to checkpoints further out on the trail.

While mushers hunkered down in Nikolai, Libby Harrop and other members of her tour group gathered in the McGrath Hotel, where they’re staying as their tour flies out to the interim checkpoints. “This is part of it,” she said of the weather delay, noting that she'd rather be safe on the ground than fly in dangerous conditions. The trip is her third to the Iditarod trail, and she said it’s the first time she’s been delayed by weather.

Harrop was first struck by the dog mushing bug as a girl in New Zealand in 1954 when she was ill with “measles, mumps, chicken pox, whatever it was.” She, and then her sisters, was quarantined due to her illness, and during that time, she read the children’s encyclopedia, from which she learned about Alaska’s 1925 serum run. Years later, in the 1970s, when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race started, she discovered the race through a television program, and followed along as a fan.

A few years ago, Harrop was following the race and decided to bid on a bib to be an Idita-rider – she was torn on which musher to bid on, between Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Ralph Johannessen, due to her Norwegian heritage. She settled on Leifseth Ulsom because that year, he wore bib No. 47, her birth year.

Since then, Harrop, who owns a lavender farm in New Zealand, began sponsoring the musher, both financially, and with lavender oil, which relaxes and heals the muscles of the dogs, she says.

She’s come on the trail tour for the last three years, she says. “I love it coming here,” she said of McGrath. “(There are) tears in my eyes when we come here. It’s like coming home.” Harrop visited McGrath in 2017 even when the race bypassed this part of the trail.

Kevin Whitworth, of McGrath, says having regular visitors is a great part of the Iditarod. “It means a lot to me personally, meeting old friends. I always enjoy seeing people coming back.”

Harrop and Pat Kunka, another member of the same tour group, say the remoteness of the checkpoint is what makes it great. “When we lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, you get used to the traffic, all the crowds. Here you have none of that, but what you have is nature at its finest,” Kunka said.

Even without being grounded, lodge owners along the trail are just glad the race is back.

Steve Perrins, one of the owners of the Rainy Pass Lodge, says the Iditarod starting in Fairbanks cost him about $60,000 in business. Monday, he was welcomed by the sight of about 30 planes on the lake, and about 180 visitors.

Though his bookings are still down this year, he’s thrilled the race has returned.

“We’re down quite a bit. Just a couple days ago we had some fill-ins, so it definitely was an impact,” Perrins said. “But I think this is the type of thing that we need to launch the Iditarod spirit and know that we’re going to be here and that the race is coming through.”

As of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, nine mushers had left Nikolai bound for McGrath. They’re expected into the checkpoint Tuesday evening.

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