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Petit Leads Iditarod Out of Unalakleet

Musher in red vest, seen from behind, answers questions to a large group of closely-gathered reporters, many holding cameras or microphones.
Nicolas Petit answers questions from a scrum of reporters at the Unalakleet checkpoint. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

Nic Petit is in the driver’s seat of the 2019 Iditarod. The Girdwood musher leads the race by a few hours, but a hungry pack of mushers are looking for an opening.

KNOM’s Ben Matheson has more as the race reaches the Bering Sea coast and its final phase.

After a 90-mile, overnight run from Kaltag, Nic Petit pulled into to Unlakleet shortly after sunrise.After setting his snowhook, he was all business.

He threw down armfuls of straw for his dogs’ beds and went to work cooking a hot soup of meat and kibble.

Close-up of an ivory carving of a musher and sled dog team, held in a person’s hand.
As part of the Ryan Air Gold Coast Award won by Nicolas Petit, he received a dog team sculpture carved from walrus ivory by Leonard Savage of Holy Cross. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.
Profile of dark-haired musher wearing grey parka and red vest
Nicolas Petit, shortly after arriving in Unalakleet. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

For being first to the coast, Petit wins an ivory carving and $1,500 in Bering Sea gold nuggets. But he’s got his eye on a bigger prize, the one that eluded him last year despite being first to the the Bering Sea. But quality rest was the priority at the moment; Petit settled in for a break.

“All but the yearling have been here, and they were like, ‘where are we going?’ [so I say] ‘We’re going here.’”

The Norton Sound coast brings sudden snow squalls, big bursts of wind, and a vast horizon that demands lead dogs to fully concentrate on the trail ahead. Anything can happen along the last 300 miles of trail. Last year, Petit lost the trail heading north to Koyuk, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom seized the lead. This year, it’s familiar ground as Petit again leads Ulsom going up the coast.

“…and the same exact trail report. So yeah, we’ll see what happens.”

In foreground, spectators hold up smartphone cameras to Nicolas Petit, seen in background in a red vest, grey jacket and winter hat.
Spectators crowd around Petit at the Unalakleet checkpoint after his arrival. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

After five hours and a quick nap, Petit was out and headed up to Shaktoolik.

That’s when the competition filed in. During a span of six minutes Sunday afternoon, three top teams worked hard to stay a striking position blasted through the checkpoint.

Pete Kaiser roared in; he dropped one dog and was out.

Within seconds, defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrived. He threw bacon slices to his team during the brief stop, and Jessie Royer parked directly behind him.

She rummaged though her drop bag for snacks.

The three split the long run into two parts and had rested through the midday a few miles outside of Unalakleet. They’re taking a hard right turn up the coast in Unalakleet, but the notorious trail to Koyuk will be different this year.

After a warm winter and a series of storms, there is very little sea ice on Norton Sound. One of the race’s iconic runs — a straight shot across Norton Bay — will instead hug the shoreline, adding several miles to mushers’ trips up the coast.

Image at top: Nicolas Petit answers questions from a scrum of reporters at the Unalakleet checkpoint. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

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