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Waiting for Martin Buser in Unalakleet: Old Friends, and Muktuk

Martin Buser posing with a fan in Unalakleet.

Martin Buser posing with a fan in Unalakleet. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

Mushers who have been competing in the Iditarod a long time have relationships and traditions they re-visit each time they run the race. And for Martin Buser, when he gets to Unalakleet, that means a bag of muktuk.

“I love eating the local food, and for about 15 years, a little girl would come and meet me, no matter what time of my arrival, her mom would drag her down. And now, of course, the girl is grown up and out of Unalakleet.”

But that tradition is being held up by someone new, who stood patiently by Buser’s dog team before handing him a ziplock bag of whale skin and blubber.

“This little boy has come and brought me muktuk, local boy Wasook Jones, brings me muktuk every time I show up, inconveniencing himself and his family to make sure I have some of the most delicious muktuk around. It’s just always heart-warming when he shows up and brings me that. I always gobble it down right away.”

Rick Casillo mushing out of Unalakleet.

Rick Casillo mushing out of Unalakleet. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

As Buser watered his dogs, he chatted with Clarence Towarak, who has come down to say hi to the musher each year since the ‘80s. Buser pointed up to some wind turbines on a hill and asked Towarak a question.

“How come none of your windmills are turning?” “There’s no wind up there. It’s dead calm, pretty much.” “Up there? It was blowing where I came from. That perplexed me when I came around the corner.” “That’s finicky wind around here. That means there’s no wind in Shaktoolik, that’s what that means.” “Oooh! I better go!”

As Buser attended to his dogs, Towarak explained that when mushers are at the front of the pack, they don’t have much time or energy for talking with folks.

“At least he’s got a sense of humor at this point in time. Those guys in the top five to ten, they’re all business.”

It’s not been a great race for Buser. His dogs have been persistently sick, which, at one point, made him doubt he’d be able to finish. That’s never occurred. In nearly four decades of mushing, Buser hasn’t scratched in an Iditarod. But the worst seems to be over, and he said the dogs finally looked ready to run.

“All we need to do is get it done. Just get to Nome, get this over with, that’s all I need. Get another one under the books and re-group.”

If he finishes, this will be Buser’s 34th full Iditarod.

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