Dent, others start across Bering ice

Formation helps dogs cope

late Sunday finish seen

Iditarod

March 18, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Dan Dent and three other rookie mushers drove their teams out of the bleak Alaskan outpost of Shaktoolik together yesterday, headed for Koyuk, 50 miles away across treacherous Bering Sea ice.

The little convoy of four sleds and 45 dogs was still 229 miles and five checkpoints from the Iditarod Trail race's finish line in Nome.

Bunching up before trying to cross the sea ice is a tactic often urged on Iditarod mushers, especially the inexperienced.

For 35 miles of the run to Koyuk, the mushers must turn off the beach and cross open sea ice marked only by stakes and spruce boughs stuck into the snow.

Open gaps in the ice and the sound of cracking ice can be disconcerting, to say the nothing of the wind and the flat, white monotony.

"On a map it seems like 40 miles, but it always seems like a hundred," say the Iditarod trail notes posted for would-be mushers (www.iditarod.com). "Stop and wait out the weather if you get lost. It is entirely possible to get turned around and headed out to open water, which is usually at least 10 to 20 miles to the southwest."

Dogs, perhaps having more sense than humans, have been known to stall or turn back after feeling the wind or getting a look at the expanse of ice they're being asked to cross. Many mushers have scratched -- dropped out -- there because their dogs wouldn't go.

In a convoy, however, a group of mushers can often get reluctant teams to follow one with a seasoned "coast leader" in the front position.

Bad weather remains a threat, however, to anyone caught in the open.

"The wind can blow at hurricane velocity out there, and ground blizzards can reduce visibility to zero in minutes. You must check the weather carefully before heading out," the trail notes warn.

The forecasts seemed relatively benign yesterday. The wind was out of the east at 9 mph in Shaktoolik. Tomorrow's forecast in Koyuk calls for cloudy skies, with a high of 17 degrees and a low of 11.

On Thursday, while Wall Street was having one of its best days ever, Dent -- president of the Baltimore investment firm of D.F. Dent & Co. -- was in Unalakleet, preparing to drive his huskies up the Bering Sea coast.

He left at 4: 45 p.m., drove on into the night, and arrived in Shaktoolik just after 1 a.m. yesterday, finishing what is supposed to be a four- to six-hour run in just over eight hours.

Dent, 58, got to Shaktoolik an hour behind Alaskan Trisha Kolegar. Three other Alaskans -- Melanie Gould, James Wheeler and Bill McKee -- pulled into the windswept coastal outpost just minutes later.

When they left Shaktoolik more than nine hours later, they all pulled out within 20 minutes of each other. Four other mushers were bringing up the rear, not too far behind them.

Barring the unforeseen, Dent is expected to arrive in Nome sometime late Sunday. If so, he will arrive with no more than 14 dogs. He left another of his original 16 huskies behind yesterday in Shaktoolik.

Only two of 28 mushers still on the trail late yesterday still had more than 14, and none of those already in Nome finished with more than 12. Several had as few as six.

Iditarod mushers drop dogs as the animals tire or develop sore muscles or strains.

The dropped animals are cared for by veterinarians and flown back to Anchorage.

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