KOYUKUK — A group of locals gathered on a bluff overlooking the Koyukuk River on Saturday morning as they waited for mushers to appear in the distance. They sipped coffee, joked and chatted about the last time the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race came through the Interior community in 2015.
Marilyn Roberts reminisced about growing up in the community, how the island across the river was once not so big and how the bluff they watched from has retreated due to erosion.
She had spent the last few nights cooking to make sure the mushers were well-fed and resting to make sure she had the energy to help out wherever needed.
“Most of the whole village gets all excited,” she said. “I prepare myself and get enough rest because I’m well-known for my cooking, and I love to cook and want to make sure everyone eats.”
More people gathered at the bluff, each giving updates about how close the mushers were. Three miles, then two, then came word that the first musher in, Wade Marrs, accidentally left the river early and went through a different part of town. Everyone leaped onto snowmachines and raced to a frozen-over lake in the middle of town that’s serving as the checkpoint.
There, Marrs was already bedding down his team and going through his routine of dog care at this checkpoint 564 miles into the race. Children crowded around him, wondering if they could pet his dogs and when he might be able to sign their Iditarod posters.
One woman handed Marrs a bag of smoked fish, pilot bread and other treats as a gift for arriving to town first.
From a bank overlooking, someone yelled, “Welcome to Koyukuk.”
Within minutes, word came that another musher was near and the children rushed to the checkpoint with posters in hand. They said their favorite mushers are Jeff King, Dallas Seavey and Mitch Seavey.
Mitch Seavey arrived in second, officially 14 minutes after Marrs, and 11 minutes later came his son, Dallas Seavey.
They each set to work with their own dog care routines. Veterinarians inspect each dog for its health, which is particularly important with the warming temperatures, and kids gather hoping to get signatures, which the mushers obliged.
Dax Lolnitz, who grew up in Koyukuk, watched the mushers arrive from his porch. He said he’d know when the teams were coming in because the local dogs would start barking.
“It’s an honor,” he said about hosting the Iditarod. “A lot of people are really happy about that. It was pretty exciting last time, but it was a little colder.”
As the day continued on and the time between mushers grew, the crowds of locals thinned and the children went back inside, just a few sticking around trying to fill out their posters with signatures.
A handful of residents, those with memories of when mushing was still an active part of the local culture, stayed out to help wherever they could.
Roberts delivered another pot of beef stew to go along with a huge pot of spaghetti she dropped off for lunch.
“There are many friendly people who love to take in anybody,” she said.
Dale Kriska was one of the locals most active at the dog lot, offering a hand with hauling straw or shuttling people and equipment around town on his snowmachine. He said he wanted to make sure that once everyone had gone home that they would have good things to say about his community.
“It’s really focused on the dog mushers. They hear and pay attention what goes on in the village,” he said. “We want the involvement and the goodness from our community, the respect for the dog mushers and the hard work they do to bring a good name back to their headquarters in Anchorage.”
Follow staff writer Matt Buxton on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.