Reuter Completes First Iditarod
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
“My race was a learning experience as much as anything else. There’s a pretty steep learning curve to running 1,000-mile races.”
– Musher Peter Reuter on his first Iditarod finish
Rookie Iditarod musher Peter Reuter completed the race on his first attempt. His time of 12 days, 2 hours, 45 minutes, 38 seconds placed him just ahead of the Red Lantern, the final musher to finish.
By comparison, the 2017 race winner was the fastest Iditarod finish in history at 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, 13 seconds, a difference of nearly four days between the finishers over the nearly 1,000-mile course.
Reuter has a sense of humor and accomplishment about his first Iditarod finish. Mushers at the back of the pack run a different race than the front of the pack. Mushers bringing up the rear face a much different set of challenges and strategies, including that their race is 50 percent longer than the winner’s.
During a delightfully lengthy interview at Girdwood Picnic Club, Reuter gave detailed account of his first Iditarod experience and challenges he faced.
While his home is in the Adirondacks, he spends summers running Alpine Air’s Glacier Dogsledding Tour on Punchbowl Glacier above Girdwood.
Iditarod preparations start weeks before the race begins. Drop bags filled with dog food, musher food and gear must be prepared for each checkpoint. There is pressure. Forgotten items mean checkpoint scrambling or doing without.
“There were a lot of nerves leading up to that through the whole drop bag process,” Reuter said. “To me, the hard work is before we’re hooked up and moving forward. All of the logistical stuff was taken care of. I had a great handling crew.”
The fun begins before the race. There is the musher’s banquet and bib draw to attend before the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage. Reuter described the Ceremonial Start as “awesome” and “entertaining” because there was no pressure, and he was surrounded by family, friends and sponsors. Then, due to low snow in the Alaska Range, racers moved to Fairbanks for Restart.
“The Restart in Fairbanks was a little more serious,” Reuter said. “That’s go time, so if you don’t have it dialed in, if it’s not in your sled or you’re not wearing it or it’s not in a drop bag, you’re going to have to do without. The Restart was all business.”
Reuter was the 53rd musher to leave the chute on the 60-mile run to Nenana, the first checkpoint. Mushers were warned about deep snow on the trail to Nenana. When Reuter’s race began, the trail was badly chewed up and difficult for the dogs. Trail conditions on the first run affected his entire race.
“It went from a really beautiful trail to four-foot troughs of sugar that would eat an entire dog team,” Reuter said. “It looked solid, like a stiff trail. My team would be cruising along at 10 mph, and all of the sudden I lose my first four dogs in a bowl of sugary snow.”
Reuter’s race quickly became about managing his team and being careful. He needed to keep consistent pressure on the dogs to prevent injuries if they started to stumble.
“That first run was somewhat nerve wracking for me,” Reuter said. “I was pleased with my run time. The nature of that trail was you really had to pay attention. I’m pretty sure that first run beat up some of my dogs. I had to deal with the effects of that throughout the race.”
Reuter dropped his first dog in Manley Hot Springs, and his race became about keeping his dog team together to make sure they crossed the finish line. He managed his team by taking more rest than other racers while posting good run times between checkpoints. The frigid temperature did not faze him.
“We were camping at 40 below,” Reuter said. “The dogs dealt fine with it. I used plenty of chemical hand warmers. I have the gear. I got in my sleeping bag twice. Other than that, I would just stretch out with my parka on my sled or lie down in the straw with the dogs for the hour I get to relax when I’m not doing dog chores.”
Reuter took his mandatory 24-hour rest in Galena where the back of the pack began to take shape. He left Galena with 14 dogs and raced to accommodate his dogs, identifying which ones were most critical and which needed to be dropped.
Reuter gave the team both physical and psychological attention and extra rest to coax them up the trail. Nonetheless, he had to drop three dogs at Huslia. He dropped additional dogs in Nulato and Kaltag.
Reuter was down to nine dogs and only a couple of leaders. His main leader was tiring with 385 miles left in the race.
“You have to move with some sense of urgency,” Reuter said, “but the team is only capable of so much at this point in time. It’s a fine line of pushing the dogs to the point of mutiny or keeping them enthused. That’s the dynamic I have going on with my team.”
Reuter began moving his remaining dogs to different positions to match their capacities. Most of his team had been to Nome, so when they reached Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast, they knew they were in the final stretch with 300 miles left.
After completing a mandatory eight-hour rest in White Mountain, there were 55 miles to Safety with a lot of ups and downs through the Topkok Hills. Reuter had to keep his team focused on finishing.
“We’re 900 some odd miles into the race,” Reuter said, “and you’ve got to keep the dogs motivated rolling up those hills. It’s a lot of kicking or getting off of the sled and running along with them, keeping the dogs moving forward.”
After the last checkpoint in Safety, there are 22 miles to Nome. Over the years, dog teams have quit in or after the checkpoint. It’s the end of the race, and they are tired after 55 miles from White Mountain. To dogs, it seems like a place to rest because there are people with clipboards and the team runs into a chute.
After leaving Safety, Reuter’s race changed dramatically. He faced the biggest challenge of his race and was concerned about finishing. Without warning, his strongest dog had an issue climbing the last, steep headwall. Reuter stopped and quickly rearranged his sled bag to fit the dog inside. Then his team decided it was rest time, which he could not allow.
“The longer you dally,” Reuter said, “the more likely it is your dog team is going to be like, ‘You know what dude? We’re pretty comfortable here.’ And that’s what happened. The dogs stopped right there on that headwall. They started peeling off their booties. People have scratched just on the other side of Cape Nome. This is in my mind for the last many hundreds of miles. My dog team starts to shut down. I can’t blame them.”
Reuter had to act quickly. He took a snub line hooked into his carabineer and tied it in behind the leaders. He went in front to urge his team to Nome.
“‘Ok, we’re going to Nome,’” Reuter exclaimed enthusiastically. “I start hauling them up this headwall, and the team starts to move.”
Reuter’s two lead dogs were plodding without much enthusiasm or speed, so he had to find an eager lead for the final 15 miles. Ermine is a lead dog but had refused the position all year until showing she wanted the job just outside of Nome.
“As we start moving forward,” Reuter said, “she’s plowing me and the lead dogs over to get the sled moving. Ermine has been to Nome multiple times. I had no doubt that Ermine was like, ‘Dudes! We’re 15 miles from steaks and a nice meal.’ I put her up in lead, and she rocked my team into Nome along with Mekong. It was very cool to see her do that. She did me a big favor.”
Having completed his first Iditarod, Reuter was greeted by his wife Daun, family members and friends to celebrate his accomplishment. His finish was the highest achievement in a 35-year mushing career, and he gave credit to his family and supporters for giving him the opportunity.
“What a sense of satisfaction and gratitude,” Reuter said. “We did it, but it’s a big we. That team rolling under the arch was a testament. It’s a really big deal for me. So many people have invested their time to make this a reality for me and the dogs. The amount of energy it takes to get one dog team to Nome is mind-boggling. This process started years ago. The amount of support, financially, emotionally, that I have received over the last several years has been overwhelming.”