This article by Lex Treinen was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
It wasn’t how Iditarod rookie Eddie Burke Jr. wanted to start his 34th birthday.
Early Saturday, Burke found himself lying on the snow, without his dog team and in subzero temperatures. He had no way to call for help.
Burke said he and his team had been traveling between Grayling and Eagle Island when he fell asleep.
“My foot fell off the runner board and hit the snow and just kinda made me stumble and I fell off, and there went my team,” said Burke.
He got up and tried to run after his 11 dogs, but on the fast, hard Yukon River trail, the team can push 10 mph.
“I yelled, ‘Whoa!’” he said. “And I yelled the leader’s name, Dudley, thinking it would get his attention, and it just made him hit the burners and he just took off full sprint.”
Burke estimated he was 18 miles from the next checkpoint, Eagle Island. He said he didn’t panic. He had no other choice but to start walking.
He was alone and in the cold for about an hour before he saw a headlight. It was fellow musher Christian Turner, who let Burke hop on his sled. The two stood on the sled runners for awhile before they decided it was best if Burke got off to get rid of the extra weight. Turner called Race Marshal Mark Nordman to let him know the situation and to request a snowmachine ride, which would come from Eagle Island.
After stepping off Turner’s sled, Burke said he again found himself alone for another hour, maybe two.
Then he spotted another headlight. This time it was his closest competitor for the prestigious Rookie of the Year award, Hunter Keefe.
Both Keefe and Burke have been running toward the front of the pack, and say they developed a friendship navigating new sections of trail. But with the rookie award on the line, Burke wasn’t sure what Keefe would say.
“He goes, ‘You know, I’ll give you a ride, it don’t matter,’” said Burke.
Keefe, 23, said it wasn’t even a question of whether to help.
“I didn’t really think twice,” he said. “I let him right on because I wouldn’t want to be walking at 20-below.”
The two rode together for 8 to 10 miles. Eventually, Burke took the runners of Keefe’s sled, while Keefe sat down for a break on the tow sled in the back. Keefe said he enjoyed the company, but he kept his music going.
“I’d be talking to him and then mid-conversation I’d break into song,” Keefe said.
“He sang probably a hundred different songs, I got a full Hunter Keefe concert,” said Burke.
Eventually, a snowmachine arrived — driven by five-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey — and brought Burke to Eagle Island, where his team had arrived without him.
Burke said his 11 dogs were doing fine.
Race rules allow a musher who lost their team to get help from a snowmachine as long as they report it to Nordman, the race marshal. The race marshal is allowed to impose “appropriate sanctions” to mushers who get motorized help, but in this case, Nordman said Burke wouldn’t receive any penalty.
Burke said he was impressed by Keefe’s bond with his dogs. The two have forged a tight connection over the trail with mutual admiration. Earlier on the trail, Keefe said, Burke had given him advice about a trick to increase his dogs’ appetite and it worked well.
Burke described Keefe as “just a goofy dude, but extremely nice.”
And, he said, a very talented musher.
The two teams left Unalakleet within seven minutes of one another on Sunday, with Burke in sixth place and Keefe in seventh.
Image at top: Eddie Burke Jr. pulls into Unalakleet on Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)