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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King led mushers into the Ruby checkpoint at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, claiming the First Musher to the Yukon Award.
Two Rivers musher Sonny Lindner rode into Ruby an hour after King.
Martin Buser, Aaron Burmeister and John Baker round out the top-5.
Last year’s two top mushers, Aliy Zirkle and Mitch Seavey, are running in 11th and 15th place, respectively, and are currently between the Ophir and Cripple checkpoints.
As teams come off their mandatory 24-hour rest and head for the Yukon River, they’ll be thinking of how best to pick up the pace in what is turning out to be one of the most dramatic, but also the most competitive races in Iditarod history.
Teams haven’t yet reached the halfway mark. Twelve-time finisher Hans Gatt says even though he’s running a competitive team, he hasn’t even thought about racing yet.
“Well, usually you try to figure out any time after the 24-hour layover, but we’ll probably have to wait until we get to Ruby,” Gatt said.
Ruby is nearly 500 miles into the race. Gatt would have liked to there before he rested his team for 24 hours.
“I had to kind of patch up the dogs a little bit,” Gatt said. “I had some sick dogs that didn’t eat so I had to 24 here, otherwise, I’d be way down the trail.”
But a stopover in Takotna was exactly what Aliy Zirkle had planned.
“I always get to Takotna on my own schedule and never look at what’s happening,” she said. “I’ve looked and seen what people are doing and it’s pretty interesting. I guess I’m going to stick on my own schedule until the Yukon and then see where it works out.”
Her team was parked right next to defending champion Mitch Seavey’s. The two worked in the dog yard side-by-side, but shared few words as they focused on feeding their teams and packing their sleds.
“We’re running our own dogs right now, so if you kind of start with what your own dogs can do and then get out a little bit later and see where you’re standing compared to everyone else, I guess that’s what we’re doing,” Zirkle said.
Unlike other mushers, Zirkle says she isn’t scratching her head over the big, early push made by Martin Buser.
“It shouldn’t be surprising after what he did last year,” she said.
It’s the second year in a row Buser has set a hard and fast pace early. Zirkle says she, like many, had expected Norwegian Robert Sorlie to be something of a rabbit this year. His team was parked further up the hill, also resting for 24 hours.
“I think this is the best team I’ve run ever, so far but you never know.”
Sorlie’s team is energetic, boisterous and powerful. They’ve pulled him speedily over rough trail and dragged him through checkpoints, eager to keep moving down the trail. He says they haven’t even begun to race.
“I have not pushed them yet. I have not pushed them. I will not push them before I get to Ruby and after that I think,” he said. “They can go their own speed. That is the best for them, o go their own speed. They know best what they can do, not me.”
Sorlie’s approach involves fast runs and lots of rest. He doesn’t like to change his ways. A tried and true race plan is something former champion Dallas Seavey also likes to stick with.
“Just because Aliy, myself, my dad – oh wait a second is that the first and second place mushers from the last two Iditarods? – Now what are all of us doing? We’re not doing a flashy race, but I can guarantee you, we’re all going to be there at the end,” he said.
The younger Seavey likes to keep things relatively simple.
“A lot of times when I see mushers do big moves now, what it tells me is they’ve used their joker, they’ve played that card, they don’t have that card to play on the coast,” he said.
Regardless of where mushers start to make strategic moves, they will eventually have to cut a little rest if they want to stay competitive. It’s something Ray Reddington Junior is well aware of.
“Well, I’d like to start doing it somewhere along the river and I’m going to have a little bit of fun here myself and get a little pressure off the dogs,” he said. “Hopefully our run times will stay up and some of these guys will slow down a little bit.”
This is Reddington’s 13th Iditarod. He’s climbed his way into the top-10 the last three consecutive years, but he says he can’t let his guard down.
“I mean how many of us when you figure it out is within an hour or two of each other right now,” Reddington said. “You can’t mess up. If you mess up now, you might have ten teams go by you just for one little hiccup.”
Teams have a quick jaunt over to Ophir out of Takotna where they can readjust their plans and take care of dogs. It’s still more than 140 miles to Ruby where the race meets the Yukon River and teams will presumably start to pick up the pace.
Jeff King took the lead in the 2014 Iditarod when he charged out of Cripple Wednesday night ahead of Sonny Lindner. King left about 8:30 and Lindner followed at 9:09. Both were racing with 14 dogs.
Aaron Burmeister, John Baker, Paul Gephardt and Martin Buser trailed the leaders and were still in Cripple early Thursday morning. Buser is among 26 mushers who have taken their 24-hour mandatory layover. Neither King nor Lindner has taken the long layover.
Katherine Keith resumed the lead among rookies. She was out of Ophir.
Last year’s winner, Mitch Seavey was out of Ophir, too, and in 15th place. Aliy Zirkle, who finished second last year, was in ninth place and out of Ophir.
Rookie Lev Shvarts scratched Wednesday night in Rohn.
While Aaron Burmeister collected his gold nugget prize at the halfway point of Cripple, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner were looking ahead to Ruby, where both plan to take their 24-hour rests -- an unconventional move that could pay off or backfire, depending on how things unfold along the trail.March 5, 2014
Aaron Burmeister was the first musher to Cripple Wednesday afternoon, about an hour ahead of Jeff King. Burmeister arrived about 3:26 with 13 dogs. King had 15.
Sonny Lindner also reached Cripple Wednesday afternoon. He was racing with 16 dogs.
Paul Gebhardt was in fourth place and out of Ophir. John Baker trailed Gebhardt.
Martin Buser – who has taken his 24-hour mandatory layover was in sixth place and out of Ophir.
Charley Bejna lead the field of rookies. He left Takotna Wednesday night.
Last month I took the Alaska Railroad’s weekly “Aurora Train” from Anchorage to Fairbanks and then farther north to Wiseman for stunning views of the aurora borealis.March 5, 2014
For nearly 40 years, ferry workers who are Alaska residents have gotten a cost-of-living adjustment, allowing them to be paid more than those who don’t live in the state. Now, a bill getting rid of that salary bonus is moving through the Legislature. And the way it’s advanced has raised hackles.
Because it stretches from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington, the Alaska Marine Highway is one of the few arms of the state that employs outsiders. It’s also the only branch of state government that sets its minimum salary on Seattle’s cost of living, instead using Anchorage or Juneau as a base. The idea is that in-state workers should have a cost-of-living differential added on. That difference can end up being $10,000 or more.
A bill moving through the State Senate would strip that provision.
Bill sponsor Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, says the legislation is not about the difference between Alaska workers and Washington workers — it’s about getting ferry workers in line with the rest of state government.
“My view is it brings more fairness and consistency into those contracts,” says Dyson.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, doesn’t agree. He’s got a few problems with it. For one, he sees it as an attack on Alaska hire.
“The effect of the bill is it gives everyone that works for the marine transportation system that lives in Alaska a pay cut and keeps the salary the same for those living in Seattle,” says Wielechowski.
Wielechowski is also unhappy with how the bill’s moving forward.
The bill comes as the marine transportation unions are negotiating their contracts for the next three years. If the bill passes before an agreement is reached, Alaskan workers could lose $8 million in wages, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
Because the bill affects so many people’s paychecks, dozens of ferry workers came to testify before the State Affairs Committee last week. There was a nine-page list of names of people who called in to oppose the legislation. Only four got to speak before testimony was closed to the public.
Wielechowski says he’s never been a part of a committee where that’s happened.
“I think it makes the public cynical when we don’t even give them the right to have two minutes to tell us how they feel about a bill that’s in front of us,” says Wielechowski.
Dyson, who chairs the committee, says closing testimony was a matter of pragmatism. The committee has 30 other bills it’s assigned to hear before the session wraps up, and he says people had the opportunity to offer written testimony or call in if they were not heard.
“We got a lot of work to do, and I doubt if any new information has come out,” says Dyson. “So, we got to limit it somewhere.”
For their part, the ferry workers who showed up were disappointed that they didn’t get to speak, because they have an even bigger concern about process.
Ben Goldrich represents the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and he says cost-of-living adjustments have traditionally been fodder for the bargaining table.
“It’s very strange to be up on the Hill talking about an issue that normally we would be dealing with in negotiations,” says Goldrich.
Goldrich worries that the Parnell administration is using the bill as leverage. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect immediately after being signed into law. That could put pressure on unions to accept a deal before that date to avoid losing the cost-of-living differential during the upcoming contract period.
“If somebody from the Department of Administration were to shop a bill on the Hill, that might constitute what we call an unfair labor practice,” says Goldrich.
The Department of Administration addressed the role compensation played in the Alaska Marine Highway budget during presentations to the Legislature this year. Dyson says that the administration also spoke with him about the cost-of-living differential.
Andy Mills, a special assistant in the Department of Administration, says that does not constitute an unfair labor practice. He says legislators are within their rights to bring labor bills forward, and that the leaders of both chambers have encouraged the Department of Administration to address the cost-of-living differential as a way of tightening the Marine Highway budget in a year where the state is looking at a $2 billion deficit.
“Collectively bargaining agreements is separate and apart from legislative changes to statute,” says Mills.
But Mills says yes, the legislation could affect the bargaining timeline.
“This probably adds pressure to get an agreement before a certain timeline, and we’re having those discussions at the negotiating table and hoping to reach a balanced and neutral agreements with the units,” says Mills.
Mills adds that if the bill passes and an agreement has not been reached, the Department of Administration would be more likely to negotiate for a wage freeze as opposed to an immediate salary cut.
The current union contract expires in June.
The bill was moved out of the State Affairs committee Tuesday, and it got a referral to the Finance Committee on Wednesday.
When a person dies under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state has an obligation to make sure that evidence is processed and that they can protect the victim and their family.
In rural Alaska, that means sending the body to the medical examiners office in Anchorage. If the legislature acts on a bill, part of that examination could take place locally.
The state covers some of the costs, but family members often end up paying large sums to funeral homes to prepare the body and transport it. Bodies are sent to anchorage for autopsies. They often end up paying $500 so-called taxi fees to move the body between the Medical Examiner’s office and funeral homes. That’s added to the freight costs of shipping a casket back to a village. Bethel Representative Bob Herron is sponsoring legislation to make it easier on families when they have to navigate those choices in a time of grief.
“They’re making this decision under duress, because you want to start this grieving process right away. You wan to know why the family member died, and that takes time, but sometimes it’s needless. That’s what this is about, it’s about having a process that is fair,” said Herron.
Herron wants better explanation of the costs and options for taking care of a body so a family doesn’t end up paying for some service they don’t want. Testimony in Juneau from AVCP indicated that funeral homes were “holding bodies hostage” as families scrambled to find money for embalming or caskets.
“Reputable, or whatever you want to do, people in private business are holding a body until they get payment. It’s apparently a fact of life,” said Herron.
Another change would require the state to pay for embalming if required by regulation for transportation on air carriers. A next step would be finding a way to use the region’s telemedicine facilities to do autopsies or pre autopsies remotely.
“Where you can bring the body to Bethel, generally that’s what happens anyway, and they can put it in the morgue, and set up a time to visit with the medical examiner via teleconference. And the doctor or PA can take the camera and walk through it. After the first hearing, I’m real hopeful,” said Herron.
Herron is proposing a pilot project in the region, but there’s nothing in the bill to establish one. Another part of the bill would allow local officials to be able to issue death certificates in some cases instead of having it done in Anchorage. The house bill is currently in the Health and Social Services committee.
Nome Musher Aaron Burmeister has the Iditarod lead. He pulled into the remote checkpoint of Cripple at 3:25 this afternoon. Jeff King followed 40 minutes later. A number of mushers appear to be taking their 24 hour lay overs in Takotna, including Aliy Zirkle, Robert Sorlie and Dallas and Mitch Seavey.
A dozen mushers have scratched, many with bruised bodies and battered sleds from the rough and snowless trail into Nikolai.
Iditarod teams are making their way across the Interior region where the trail is soft, smooth and covered in snow – a far cry from the rough and rocky trail that took many mushers out of the race earlier this week.
Four-time champion Martin Buser is one of only a few mushers to have completed his mandatory 24-hour rest. He blew through McGrath this morning on what he calls an unorthodox race plan.
“More bigger better faster!” Buser said. “No, I’m, just going to go out here and take a camp and just camp my way to Nome!”
Buser’s energetic dogs trotted quickly out of the checkpoint after a quick stop for water. They blew through Takotna where 26-year-old Pete Kaiser of Bethel decided to take his 24-hour rest.
“It was one of the plans I had. I was set up t do it other places also, but I decided to do it here,” Kaiser said. “It was hard to pass up and I didn’t really see it as a benefit to this team to go any farther.”
Kaiser has run the race four times, but eight of Kaiser’s dogs are rookies to the Iditarod trail.
“This is a young team this year that I am driving and they look pretty good now and I just figured let’s stop while the look good and just see how the rest of the race goes,” Kaiser said.
Most of the teams coming into Takotna are still large. Most mushers left the start line with 16 dogs. There’s currently only one team among the top-30 that is running fewer than 13 dogs.
Curt Perano, the Kiwi musher, says he’s surprised considering how rough the first 200 miles of trail were.
“I would have thought we would have had a lot of shoulders and wrists but the funny thing is even though we hate it, the dogs just love that sort of stuff,” Perano said. “They just love that windy fast trail I mean you can see they just dig in harder and you ask them to stop and they just want to keep going and their attitudes!”
With just over 300 miles behind them teams will still have to contend with the Interior, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero tonight. The Yukon River also lies ahead before teams reach the Bering Sea Coast.
Tonight the University of Alaska Anchorage will feature a panel discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Last night we brought you the perspective of a legalization advocate and this evening we offer the opposing side. Dean Guaneli is a retired assistant attorney general for Alaska. Guaneli says there is confusion over the current law regulating marijuana here. He says because of the privacy clause in the state constitution, a 1976 decision by the Alaska Supreme court made it impossible for the state to enforce the law for small amounts in one’s home. But he says in 2006, the legislature clearly re-criminalized marijuana.