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In Unalakleet: Mushers Talk Trail, Weather, Dogs

The Iditarod checkpoint of Unalakleet – the first on the Norton Sound coast – has seen a lot of mushers come and go over the past few days.  Our trail reporter Laureli spent time in Unalakleet (her hometown) on Sunday and Monday; she sampled the mood from a handful of mushers stopped there as they took stock of their dogs, the weather, the rough trail behind them, and the final stretch ahead of them.

Read on to hear about mushers Dallas Seavey, Gerry Willomitzer, Ramey Smyth, Aliy Zirkle, Jim Lanier, Michelle Phillips, and Jason Barron: all in Unalakleet.

Musher Dallas Seavey was happy with his Iditarod progress thus far, but not necessarily with the weather; the coastal checkpoints (from Unalakleet onwards) are notorious for their exceptionally high winds. Seavey is further back in the race standings this year than he was at Unalakleet in 2009, but he explained why he sees big improvements with his team in 2010. He also talked a bit about his encounter with John Baker last week on the trail to Cripple:

Gerry Willomitzer was also struck by the strong winds his team has experienced recently. It’s not something they – or he – are accustomed to, and his sled dogs have been challenged in more ways than one: Willomitzer sent home his two primary lead dogs, and the rest of the team has had to shuffle to compensate. As for the rest of the run, the Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran says he’s taking it “one step at a time” and “one checkpoint at a time.”

Ramey Smyth also talked to Laureli about the rough winds, but he took a different perspective than Seavey or Willomitzer (or some of the other mushers below). For Smyth, the high wind “signals the end”: the final stretch of trail before the finish in Nome. Smyth also recalled a recent moment on the trail when his team ran “like a rhinoceros going through a forest,” and he discussed his goals for the rest of the race:

Aliy Zirkle admits that trail conditions have been rough this year, especially from Kaltag to the Tripod Flats, but she’s hoping to avoid a repeat of 2009, when a blizzard delayed her (and many other teams) at Shaktoolik. As for this year, she’s full of praise for her dogs – and gently self-deprecating about their musher:

How cold… is too cold? Jim Lanier is no stranger to Western Alaskan weather, but he says that the recent temperatures (sometimes dipping to -40) have been starting to wear on him. Lanier’s experienced a few errors on the trail, too, including a brief run in the wrong direction near the Old Woman cabin. Nonetheless, the veteran musher is keeping his eyes on the finish line, not least because he plans to premiere another new song at this year’s mushers’ banquet:

Michelle Phillips is running her first Iditarod in 2010, but it’s not her first time mushing; the Iditarod rookie has run the Yukon Quest five times. She talked with our reporter Laureli about what makes the Last Great Race different:

Iditarod 2010 has tested Jason Barron‘s ability to deal with the unexpected. The health of his dogs has been a major factor in his run this year; at this stage of the competition, he’s just “stickin’ it out.” As for his goals in the race, making it to the finish line will do:

At the time of writing, Ramey Smyth is in 7th position; he departed Elim at 10:13pm (Monday evening) with 12 dogs.

Dallas Seavey is in 10th position, out of Koyuk at 5:36pm with 10 dogs. Aliy Zirkle is 11th, out of Koyuk at 8:10pm with 10 dogs. Gerry Willomitzer is in 15th position; he left Koyuk with 12 dogs at 10:57pm.

Jim Lanier left Shaktoolik at 10:21pm Monday with 12 dogs; he’s in 26th position. Michelle Phillips and Jason Barron are both reported into Shaktoolik. Phillips, in 29th position, arrived at 9:09pm Monday with 12 dogs; Barron, in 30th position, pulled into Shaktoolik with 9 dogs at 9:30pm.