Harsh weather conditions, mechanical issues and even a newborn baby didn’t stop the Alaskan Northwest riders from sprinting in the Iron Dog this year.
Kotzebue’s Chris Collins and Doug Wicken, who made up Team 12, finished 10th in the race this year, while Team 4 – Noorvik’s Jim Baldwin and Kotzebue’s Steven Quincy Williamson Jr. – scratched at Kotzebue but lost. have a good run. Now that the Iron Dog is over, runners in Northwest Alaska have gone home and reflect on it.
“It’s been a very tough year, to say the least,” Collins said.
Collins said more snow than usual made it much more difficult going north, and as they headed south, warmer temperatures brought rain and eroded parts of the trail.
“We had to be very careful traveling at night, where to cross and how to cross it,” he said.
Mechanical issues posed more obstacles for Collins and Wicken. As they started the race at a normal pace, at around 150 miles, Collins discovered that his sled was missing a center shock cross shaft, which was responsible for the suspension. Collins said he got all the way to Koyuk without the shock and had to do his best not to break the machine.
“Basically I couldn’t go fast because I was missing the center shock,” he said. “At this point we’re just in survival mode trying to finish the race.”
In addition to solving their own problems, the riders also tried to help others they saw stuck on the trail.
“Over the years I’ve had some really good runners who have helped me. How many entries has there always been a runner to get me back on a trail with a ski pole,” Collins said, adding that now it was his turn. “People helped me, now I have to help others, paying it forward.”
After the missing central shock, a small accident on the ice and the fatigue that set in, Collins was physically tired. But as runners began to traverse the Red Dog Loop and communities in northwest Alaska, starting in Buckland, “it was like an instant adrenaline rush,” he said.
Runners stopped for about 15-20 minutes in communities to take photos and sign programs, and people greeted them with signs, smiles and cheers.
“We went to Buckland, and it was great. We went to Selawik, and it was good. We had the Kiana, and it was great,” Collins said. “There was a very nice reception for the local team that arrived. All the faces of the children, faces of the adults – everyone at the checkpoints were shouting for us, which allowed us to move forward with enough of energy to the next checkpoint. The energy of the crowd kept us going and pushing us forward.”
On the way back, the team dealt with more mechanical issues.
“We’ve done a lot of miles with very little sleep,” Collins said. “It was much harder than we expected, but we had to finish the race and complete the mission.”
The team conducted a suicide prevention campaign before and during the race. When speaking to residents, Collins and Wicken shared information about available mental health resources and talked about the importance of remembering that no one is ever alone.
Collins and Wicken also plan to race next year to continue their campaign.
“Because the race is over for this year doesn’t mean our message is over,” Collins said. “We want to spread this message through summer events, through communities and eventually by traveling to other communities outside of Kotzebue to talk to people and hold rallies and prevent more suicides from happening.”
Great family news
Another local team – Team 4 formed by Jim Baldwin of Noorvik and Steven Quincy Williamson Jr. of Kotzebue – had their own set of challenges.
Williamson and his girlfriend had a newborn 10 days before the race, Baldwin said.
“It was a big event before the big event,” Baldwin said.
Nonetheless, runners were preparing for the race as best they could, putting in miles to train despite the cold snap that lingered in northwest Alaska for a few weeks. Baldwin said he once looped while it was 45 below zero.
Baldwin, who first raced in 1999, said this year the team suffered several setbacks from day one.
“When you think of a mechanical problem, about 90 percent of the time you can fix the problem and keep racing,” Baldwin said. “But our first setback, we had to live with it for 150 miles and slow down for 150 miles.
“We were in no man’s land where there are no snogo parties,” he said,
The team ended up having to drive to McGrath with a broken part, essentially going 10 miles per hour, more than three times slower than necessary. At McGrath, Baldwin found the missing piece, repaired the sled, only to realize a few hundred miles down the road that he had the exact same thing happening again.
“We just kind of had to regroup again and go through the same process again,” he said. “It’s just a $20 slice that spoiled us all.”
The team had a pretty good race arriving in Nome, but on leaving Nome they encountered poor driving conditions and other mechanical issues significant enough that they made the decision to pull out of the race around Kotzebue.
To Baldwin’s surprise, people, who were following the race online and saw that the team was moving to Kotzebue instead of Selavik, decided that Team 4 riders were lost.
“It was quite surprising to see people’s comments,” Baldwin said. “How could they even think I could get lost in an area where I grew up?”
Overall, Baldwin said the team had a great time and met some great people along the way, who offered their help and hospitality.
“I was grateful that there were so many people in rural communities who were just willing to help with anything,” Baldwin said. “It’s not just to help you out in a situation that you might find yourself in. They can just open the doors to their house and say, ‘You’re going to stay, come and eat.
Baldwin also plans to race next year. At 47, he says he has at least a few more years to go to be competitive in a race like the Iron Dog. He said the event is important to Northwest Alaskans who look forward to it every year.
“It’s amazing what people in small communities will do to make an event like this happen,” he said. “It’s going through our area, and it’s a big event for us, especially after it’s been dark and cold all winter and spring is approaching. (The race) opens a lot of people’s eyes and gives them something to look forward to.”