Tuesday wasn’t my first time covering news in McGrath, but it was my first time covering Iditarod in McGrath. It was also my first day covering Iditarod ever.
Keeping that in mind didn’t seem to help alleviate any sense of urgency I had as soon as our charter plane touched down.
The buildup to my first day of Iditarod coverage came with careful planning, provided mainly from guidance I received from our resident sports anchor Kevin Wells: Dress warm and don’t bother mushers till they have had a chance to get their dogs fed and situated. It was already the fourth day of the race by the time we arrived in McGrath.
It wasn’t my first time in McGrath, a town of about 400 or so residents, or working in a frigid environment. Luckily it wasn’t cold -- not cold by Alaskans’ standards, anyway. It was about 16 degrees outside, plenty warm enough. However, the body’s ability to deal with the weather aside, there are certain technological considerations one must be aware of when working in the cold. Camera lenses don’t like frequent transitions from cold to warm weather. Lenses fog up; batteries die faster.
Worrying about my camera wasn’t foremost on my mind, though. I knew this was my first time working on Iditarod, and my task seemed straightforward enough: Chronicle your journey along the Iditarod trail as a first-time observer. Be the eyes and voice of those who haven’t had the experience before.
A din built as rumor of the first musher to arrive in McGrath drew closer. It was Sonny Lindner, of Two Rivers, and it sounded like he was going to take the first of two mandatory layovers in McGrath. He wouldn’t have to stay, Wells told me, but it looked like Lindner was going to take the 24-hour layover. He would still have to take an eight-hour layover at some later point.
As Lindner came into view, the kids grew excited and the adults sought out a good spot to get a good view. Seeing that first sled come into view had a funny effect on me. Watching Lindner I was suddenly aware of all the tradition and history associated with Iditarod. I might have been able to imagine what someone saw nearly 100 years ago if not for a small, red helicopter closely following behind Lindner. A photographer hung out the side of the chopper snapping pictures for some publication.
Then Lindner was in McGrath. He was immediately swarmed by well-wishers, reporters, photographers and kids with autograph books. Here was this bundled-up 64-year-old man, his 16 dogs and his entourage, something similar to a Hollywood movie star surrounded by fans and paparazzi.
Lindner pulled his sled in and started building straw beds for his dogs. The dogs quickly laid themselves down and began to fall asleep.
Iditarod veterinarians took the opportunity to check on their vital signs and gave treatment as needed.
Aliy Zirkle, also of Two Rivers, followed closely behind Lindner and she received a similar welcome. The only difference, she wasn’t stopping.
Yet, she slowed her 15 dogs down nonetheless for the warm welcome and a quick photo op for reporters and anyone else with a camera. Then just like that, she was back on the trail, fading quickly into the distance on the great frozen Kuskokwim River.
Girdwood’s Nicolas Petit, then Denali’s Jeff King, then Tok’s Hugh Neff, and finally Nome’s Aaron Burmeister followed Zirkle. It was about 6:35 p.m. when Burmeister came through McGrath and kept going. Besides Lindner, King was the only other musher to take a layover in McGrath.
We’d heard Burmeister had hurt his knee and would get treatment in Takotna. Rumor of the severity of the injury spread through McGrath quickly and varied in severity, from a full-blown open compound fracture, to a dislocation, or maybe a ligament tear. Regardless, the 38-year-old from Nome plodded on.
Reporters were speedily finishing their live shots from McGrath while others got behind a laptop screen and started typing away. The din had mellowed, but I knew it was going to be short-lived. There were still 56 mushers still expected to pass through McGrath and it was only 6:55 p.m.