Wails of Iditarod Racing, Uncharted Miles, and a Volunteer Vet: More Unalakleet Moments

UNALAKLEET — The leaders are long gone, but the race is still on for many mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. We met some of the VIPs in the middle of the race course on a crisp, clear morning off the coast of Norton Sound.

How far will a rookie go?

As of this moment, Hanna Lyrek is setting new personal records every time she pulls her bait.

“We’ve never, ever run this much before,” said Lyrek, an Iditarod rookie from Alta, Norway.

Lyrek, 22, kicked out his team as sunlight peeked over the horizon. She is a veteran distance runner at home, but her longest has been the 700-mile Finnmark.

“We don’t have any more in Norway,” he said.

In fact, none of the dogs on his team have 1,000-mile racing experience. She said that the four dogs that rotate in the main tasks: Keen, Denali, Koren and Sammy 3 have impressed her.

“They just seem ready to go when it’s time to go, and after traveling so far, that’s not always the deal,” Lyrek said. “It’s been so much fun watching them.”

[Technical difficulties, pizza deliveries and life lessons: Scenes from the Iditarod in Unalakleet]

Lyrek is one of four mushers on the Qrill Pet Mushing Team, which the company describes as “the world’s first professional long-distance dog sledding team.” The team also includes Iditarod champions Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Thomas Waerner.

He left Unalakleet with 10 dogs who wore bright orange coats and looked ready to run.

As of Monday morning, Lyrek was well positioned for Iditarod Rookie of the Year honors, but there’s a long way to go, he said.

“It would definitely be fun, but finishing is still the main goal,” Lyrek said.

meet a vet

Growing up in Anchorage, Rhyannon Moore-Foster was so excited about the Iditarod that she once wanted to be a musher. She and her family attended the commencement ceremony in Anchorage every year.

“Seeing these incredible athletes, both people and dogs, is really inspiring,” he said.

She hasn’t put together a team yet, but she thinks the Iditarod played a part in her career path: She became a veterinarian. Now, Moore-Foster is a professor at Colorado State University specializing in ranching.

A couple of years ago, he responded to a Facebook post seeking candidates to become Iditarod vets and thought, “Hey, I always wanted to try that. Why not.”

Today, she is spending long days as mushers come and go from Unalakleet.

“You start to adjust to running with three or four hours of sleep,” he said. “But it’s only a week or so, and only once a year.”

[Brent Sass, resting in White Mountain, is poised for his first Iditarod victory]

This is Moore-Foster’s second Iditarod. She is part of a team of dozens of career vets who work at each checkpoint. Ideally, she said, there are four to six veterinarians rotating shifts at each checkpoint, examining dogs, advising mushers and caring for dogs eliminated from competition heading to McGrath or Anchorage.

“We try to put ears and eyes on each dog as best we can,” he said.

“I love it,” he said. “I love meeting people and seeing dogs.”

What about his childhood hopes of becoming a musher? Moore-Foster laughed.

“Maybe as a retirement plan,” he said.

a balancing act

Attending to her team after a long break at Unalakleet, Paige Drobny weighed in her mind how she would like to proceed down the coast.

Drobny, a seven-time Iditarod veteran who placed seventh in both 2019 and 2020, is no longer in contention for the top spot this year. Early in the race, he took his dogs on some long runs that weren’t worth it. It was a “management error” on his part, he said.

“I had to slow down to try to give them a little more recovery time,” he said.

“I wish I had done some things differently, for sure. I have eight dogs, so now I’m trying to be super conservative,” she said.

Drobny entered the race with a last-minute shakeup of his starting lineup.

“I had a couple of top leaders that couldn’t go so I hadn’t really run this team as a team before the race,” he said. “A couple of them have been here before, but not in charge.”

Drobny spent eight hours at Unalakleet. “When I was on the way here, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just do another 24,’” he said.

Going forward, Drobny said his goal is to give his dogs a good experience the rest of the way. Still, his competitive instincts are awake. It’s hard to completely ignore his final position, he said.

“It’s very difficult to do,” he said. “There are still opportunities to compete, so unfortunately it’s still in my head. I can’t turn it off.