TANANA — Things were looking pretty grim for Scott “the Mushin’ Mortician” Janssen in last year’s Iditarod after he suffered a race-ending leg injury. But after arriving here late Tuesday, the Anchorage musher was all smiles and sounded as chipper as his raspy voice would allow.
He had plenty to be happy about: Janssen survived last year’s race and turned 54 early Wednesday when the clock struck 12 a.m. Plus, he was enjoying a mostly smooth ride with his team, mushing into the night in crisp temperatures under clear skies, doing what he loves.
“It’s just incredible to get here on a dog sled,” Janssen said. “It’s a great way to celebrate your birthday.”
A streetlight illuminated the sleeping dogs, curled up on beds of straw, as reflectors on some of their jackets shone in the dark. Two Rivers’ Allen Moore arrived about 12:20 a.m. Wednesday, his young team in training looking eager to bed down. Moore brought straw to each dog, shaking some on top of them to help them burrow inside it.
At the other end of the dog lot here, surrounding the Tanana community hall, Montana’s Jessie Royer loaded straw onto her sled preparing for the next leg. The 119 miles to Ruby is by far the longest distance between checkpoints, and many mushers planned to camp along the way.
Royer said a bug was going around all the teams, causing some minor diarrhea and vomiting for some dogs. It seemed to be running its course in about 12 hours after symptoms appeared, she said.
“It seems to be going around all the teams, as far as I can tell. Mine just seem to be getting it about now,” Royer said.
Wade Marrs, from Wasilla, was warming up and drying out gear inside the hall. He and others had experienced temperatures dipping to 30 and 40 below before getting to Tanana. Marrs’ mother-daughter duo of Mask and Tundra had been leading the whole way for his team, which was still 16 dogs strong. Both finished the 1,000-mile Iditarod in 2014, when Marrs finished 16th, improving 16 positions on his 2013 finish of 32nd place.
Marrs said he planned to ramp up the length of his team’s runs, as well as their rest in between, after leaving Tanana. He said he wanted to take his mandatory 24-hour rest in Galena.
Before the mushers take their 24-hour break, the race standings can be misleading because of the staggered official start in Fairbanks. Mushers’ times are adjusted before leaving whatever checkpoint they take the mandatory layover at, meaning a team that was late in the start order has to stay for a slightly shorter period.
Marrs said he would break up the 82 miles from Galena to Huslia in two runs.
“Then start trying to catch people from there, if I can. See what happens. If everything looks good,” he said. “That’d be a good spot to try and do that.”
Denali’s Jeff King sat next to a wood stove eating and talking with Janssen and the Berington twins, Anna and Kristy. About a dozen others snoozed behind a tarpaulin wall.
Later, when the sun had come up, it was much the same in the dog yard: Mushers heated water, mixed it in with food and ladled it to their dogs. Some applied salve to the dogs’ feet or massaged their sore joints.
Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey stood and talked with Rick Casillo, of Willow, where they were parked side-by-side on the main drag, their dogs mingling.
“They could’ve parked us closer,” Casillo said, joking.
“Bonding time,” Mackey said.
Mushers reported a hard and fast trail coming into Tanana on Wednesday.
That had allowed them to run faster than some mushers wanted, causing more of the minor injuries. For Lev Shvarts, a former engineer who is still a rookie after scratching in 2014, soreness had forced him to drop four dogs, leaving him with 12.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s still within operational parameters, as they say,” Shvarts said. “They’re going good, but they’re getting banged up.”
Asked what he hoped to accomplish in this year’s race, Shvarts mentioned the belt buckle that Iditarod finishers get.
“I got this pair of pants that doesn’t stay on,” he said. “Kind of needs a belt buckle. I wanted it last year, too, and didn’t get it. I want it this year even worse.”
Rookie Alan Stevens, of Big Lake, commented on his pet dog, a 4-year-old, white 36-pounder with a “panda bear mask” on her face named Jackie. She’s also the oldest on the team.
“I never had high expectations for her as a sled dog, but she trained with the rest of the team and stayed in shape,” Stevens said. “When it came time to race, she just looked really promising and she’s been doing excellent since. And she does a really good job of keeping my toes warm in the bottom of the sleeping bag. She’s as important for me for mental support as she is to the team for pulling.”
“She’s helping me smile, which helps the dogs smile,” Stevens said. “She’d much rather be on the couch right now. She loves watching reality TV, which I hate. But you’ve got to make compromises for the ones you love.”
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and is covering the Iditarod this year. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.