After years of COVID restrictions, Nikolai meets Iditarod with cautious optimism

This article by Lex Treinen was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.

The Iditarod this year looks almost exactly as it did pre-pandemic.

There’s no longer a vaccine requirement. No mandatory COVID-19 testing. And all the checkpoints like White Mountain and Takotna are hosting teams again.

It’s also the first year since 2020 that Nikolai is fully open for Iditarod fans who flew in with private tours. Nikolai Edzeno Tribe First Chief Vernon John said the community was ready to have guests again.

“It’s pretty good to have it back and seeing people move around this morning all excited,” he said. 

Nikolai is an Athabascan village, home to roughly 100 people. It’s about a quarter of the way into the Iditarod trail.

John said the tribal council didn’t have to debate about whether or not to host the checkpoint this year, since everyone was in favor of it. Resident and Tribal administrator Kristin Wills said people in Nikolai are ready to return to normal traditions.

“COVID is gonna be around for a while, but we don’t want it to hold us back anymore,” she said. “We don’t wanna lose our tradition and we’re just gonna keep going on with things.”

Wills said the community is also restarting its annual spring carnival celebration later this March for the first time in three years and it’s even trying to book a band from Anchorage. 

Some people in town were still being cautious. Martha Stearns wore a neck warmer over her mouth as she sat on a straw bale by the dog yard.

“I’m just trying to play it safe and protect others,” she said. 

But, she said, she’s glad the Iditarod is fully back in town.

Image at top: Kelly Maixner signs autographs for local school children, who came down to the dog yard for a field trip. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)