This article by Ben Matheson was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
It’s a close race for the prestigious Iditarod Rookie of the Year award. Six eligible rookies began the race last Sunday, but after Jennifer LaBar and Gregg Vitello scratched, just four remain in the competition.
Two of the rookies, Eddie Burke Jr. and Hunter Keefe, are eyeing a top 10 finish if they are able to maintain their positions to Nome — the one who places highest wins the rookie award. Burke and Keefe left the Kaltag checkpoint Saturday night within two hours of each other, with Burke out first and Keefe behind him.
Earlier in the race, Burke described the rookie prize as more of a secondary goal.
“It’s kind of like an icing on the cake type thing. The main thing is to have a healthy dog team at the finish line. And just finish for one,” Burke said. “Other than that, if I can get Rookie of the Year and if I can get into the top 10, those are two great accomplishments right there.”
Burke, 34, has been running dogs for Aaron Burmeister’s Alaska Wildstyle Racing Kennel for three years and has secured podium finishes in races like the Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue and the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel. He added a Knik 200 win to his resume this January.
The other rookie with a shot at a top 10 is 23-year-old Keefe. He is running dogs for Raymie Redington and has been competitive in mid-distance races, including second place in the Willow 300 this year.
In the Shageluk dog yard Friday, the two top rookies broke up their chores by chatting about strategies to break up the long stretches of the Yukon River.
Keefe described Burke — his main competition for the rookie title — as a very talented musher.
“It’s a really high bar to even try to compete with a guy like that, to be up and around him is cool,” said Keefe.
The mushers continued to run neck-and-neck down the hard and fast Yukon River trail. In fact, they even helped each other out. According to an Iditarod Insider video, Burke dozed off on his sled, fell and his team kept running to the next checkpoint. Burke said Keefe gave him a ride and musher Christian Turner did, too.
“But having two guys on a sled wasn’t doing him any favors so I figured it was best if I just walked,” Burke said. “It puts me a few hours behind now because I had to walk for quite a while.”
On Saturday night, Burke had left Kaltag in fifth place, at 9:15 p.m. with 10 dogs. Keefe and his 12-dog team raced out in 10th place at 10:59 p.m. But, by Sunday morning, Keefe had passed Burke on the trail on the way to Unalakleet, according to the race tracker.
The two rookies will need to face the windy Bering Sea coast before final placings get within reach. While Nome is only a handful of days away, Keefe said he’s focused on his team for the second half of his rookie Iditarod.
“It’s a long ways from Nome yet, I’m going to keep running my dogs and he is going to run his and I hope we both have very good finishes,” said Keefe. “It’s really cool to see both of us as rookies up here, it shows the future of mushing and that there’s people here who are really dedicated to the sport and want to do good.”
The remaining rookies — Idaho musher Jed Stephensen and New Hampshire musher Bailey Vitello — are running among the last 10 positions of the race.
Image at top: Eddie Burke Jr. in Grayling. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)