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Run up Norton Sound coast sets stage for Iditarod finish (Alaska Press Club winner)

By Keith Conger - Published in the Nome Nugget newspaper 04/19/15

**First Place - Small Print, Best Sports Game Event Reporting

Esther Kimoktoak has the perfect name for an Iditarod admirer. “My

name means 'pulling', ” said the 84-year-old Koyuk elder proudly as
she waited patiently for the race leaders on Monday morning. She was
taking a break from the near zero temperatures by slowly sipping a
cup of coffee inside the Koyuk City Building that had been
transformed into a race checkpoint.

Kimoktoak says she is the oldest resident in the beautifully
wooded, coastal Norton Bay community where she was born, and her love
of mushing goes way back. Her husband Albert was the last person in
town to operate a dog team, and she doesn't have a favorite musher.
“I try to love them all,” she says.

Kimoktoak never misses the first musher arriving in Koyuk. This
year she almost watched Aaron Burmeister come into town as the race
leader, but the Nenena-based musher, who was born and raised in Nome,
was passed on the trail by Dallas Seavey of Willow out on the sea ice
just a half-mile outside of Koyuk.

Blaze orange topped stakes line the trail like matchsticks,
standing in stark contrast to the overcast skies. At 12:34 p.m. they
led Seavey, and three minutes afterwards Burmeister, up off the ice
and past the checkpoint building to a small, level patch of road
where their dogs would rest.

Darin Douglas has been the head checker in his hometown since
taking over the job from his father Raymond in 2006. He and his crew
of 15 quickly delivered bales of straw along with the drop bags the
mushers had prepared and sent weeks before.

The leaders, their dogs, and their equipment made mirror images
on opposite sides of the path. Although only a few feet apart, the
competitors were unable to see each other as the throng of heavily
clad mushing supporters, media personnel, sightseers, and plenty of
Koyuk's school-aged children on spring break, created a human wall
down the center of the road.

As the party of three Iditarod veterinarians examined each of the
team's 12 dogs, the mushers performed their ritual checkpoint dog
care duties and entertained questions from the media.

Burmeister had left the last checkpoint an hour and 20 minutes prior to Seavey, and
had prepared to make his big move when he left Shaktoolik. He told
reporters that everything had gone right in the race until this last
run. “I was expecting high winds, but I wasn't expecting a snow
squall to dump six inches of fresh snow on us too.”

“It started about three miles after we left Shaktoolik, and it
continued 'til about six this morning,” Burmeister proceeded to say
as his dogs gobbled up their food. “It was coming down so hard with
a head wind in your face that you couldn't see the leaders most of
the time.”

“There was no trail,” Burmeister said speaking of the Norton
Bay snow conditions that were at times belly-deep on his team. “We
made the trail. There was the trail we made with the dog team, and
everyone just followed me. It's time to give these guys a break, and
let somebody else wear their dog team out.”

While Burmeister, weary from a nearly 15-hour run from Unalakleet
to Koyuk, reluctantly relinquished the lead, Seavey, the two-time,
and defending Iditarod champion said he was sure that he would lead
out of the Koyuk checkpoint. He spoke confidently while feeding his
dogs, but he was not willing to stake claim to his third title just
yet. “If anyone should have learned their lesson about the race not
being over until it's over it should be me from last year. That's
still too fresh in my mind to say, 'oh this is ours', ” he said in reference to his last-minute, come-from-behind victory in 2014.

As his crew bedded down in their black coats for a post meal
snooze, Seavey said his team of young dogs had worked hard to be in
this position. He noted that if he keeps himself from falling further
back than fifth, he would be the first musher since 1990 to have a
top-5 finish five years in a row.

Seavey mentioned that his 2015 Iditarod had not been without
difficulties. His most interesting and challenging time came in his
team's run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. “The hills were backwards,”
he said, explaining that a tailwind had scoured the windward sides
forcing him to use his brake up the hills. And snow had been
deposited on the backsides forcing him to pedal and run with his sled
down the hills.

After the large crowd had dispersed, the two front runners headed
indoors to dry their gear and grab a meal and a nap. Aliy Zirkle of
Two Rivers and Jessie Royer of Darby, Montana, however, were busy
making their way across Norton Bay, with Seavey's father Mitch -
himself a two-time Iditarod champion - not far behind.

Zirkle pulled into Koyuk two hours, 41 minutes after the younger
Seavey, and 42 minutes ahead of Royer. “I was trying to hit the
ball out of the park on the way out of Shaktoolik. I tried to catch
Dallas, but we crawled here. "Dallas,” she continued dejectedly, “is
no longer in our ball park.”

Zirkle said that during the blizzard an unusually placed stake
caused her to lose the trail on the way down to the Ungalik River.
While in the whiteout she came across the elder Seavey. The
conditions were so debilitating that the pair spent a half hour
relocating the trail. “We took turns,” said Zirkle. “One of us
would stay with the parked teams, while the other searched for the
trail.”

The top five were only in Koyuk together for a short amount of
time. After dropping a dog, Dallas Seavey had pulled his team out of
the staging area at 4:48 p.m., and was headed back to the ice. At
the same time, Mitch Seavey was pulling into the narrow lane. The
uncanny timing left the two close enough to see each other, but not
close enough to speak.

The front runner had left Koyuk after only a four hour, 14 minute
rest. Burmeister hooked up his team of 11 dogs and left the
checkpoint after a five hour, 25 minute rest. His one-time lead had
turned into a one hour, 14 minute deficit. Mitch Seavey, who dropped
two dogs in Koyuk, left third after only resting three hours, 36
minutes. Zirkle and Royer departed four hours, 24 minutes off the
pace. Only Zirkle left the checkpoint with the same number of dogs

she arrived with.

As the top five worked their way back onto the trail, a
contingent of Norwegians anxiously awaited countryman Joer Leifseth
Ulsom, who was in sixth place, just 20 miles out of Koyuk. Included
in the group was Odd Kjosnes, co-founder of the Femundlopet sled dog
race, and two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie.

Traveling with the group was Henrik Wessel, who is originally
from Norway and now resides in Fairbanks. He explained the group is
traveling the trail by snowmachine as fans of Ulsom and Thomas
Waerner. He said the trip has been an amazing cultural
experience, and they even saw a seal right on the Iditarod Trail not
far from town.

Reflecting on the generosity and warmth of Koyuk and other
Iditarod villages, Wessel said, “the hospitality on the trail is
amazing. I have a 600-pound sled full of gear and supplies, but I
have not had to unload it once. People keep offering us lodging.”

Sorlie is the resident prognosticator in the group. As he watched
Seavey leave he says, “nobody can catch Dallas.”

But, as the all the top mushers know, including, and especially,
Seavey, the race is not over until someone reaches Nome.

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