Dog musher Gus Guenther of Clam Gulch said he picked the wrong year to return to competition.
Competing in his third Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and first since 1998, Guenther, 45, said the rough trail conditions were the worst he’s ever seen. Just 180 miles into the 1,000-mile trek after passing through Dalzell Gorge, his sled tipped and rolled over his leg, six miles past the Rohn checkpoint. He suffered a broken left fibula and was forced to scratch at Rohn on March 4, just two days into the restart.
The lack of snow on the trail made braking nearly impossible, causing uncontrollable speeds, he said. Sledding over rocks and bumpy terrain without snow to fill in the gaps made the conditions treacherous, he said.
“When I got out there from day one it was frightening,” he said. “I couldn’t stop or slow down.”
Guenther was one of 19 mushers to scratch before reaching Nome. He said he was surprised the race did not start in Fairbanks. At trail meetings prior to the start, officials made it sound fairly reasonable, he said. Not one to bring attention to himself or make excuses, he said he is disappointed for failing to finish a race for the first time in his 20-year career.
He said the trail was littered with broken sled parts from all the crashes. When he arrived at the Rohn checkpoint before the crash that ended his race, he spent six hours and heard similar stories from other mushers about their difficulty on the trail. Iditarod veterans like Dee Dee Jonrowe and Linwood Fiedler, who between them have competed in 50 races, also scratched in Rohn.
Guenther was one of 10 mushers who failed to advance past Rohn. After the crash, he stopped and laid straw down for his dogs to rest. He tried to convince himself he could continue, but deep down he knew he was finished.
“Nobody wants to put their dogs in harm’s way,” he said. “We have spent so much time together. My dogs are my family and I want to take care of them.”
Despite his injury, his 15 dogs are 100 percent healthy, he said. In fact, his girlfriend Emily Thiem will race his dog team at the Tug 150 in Knik this Saturday. Guenther said his team has more than 13,000 miles of racing and training in the past two years and are ready to go.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever had,” he said. “I am stacked with leaders. The dogs are athletic, just a beautiful team that have done more than I could have asked. I’m bummed I couldn’t lead them to Nome.”
Guenther, who is back home recovering, said he didn’t watch the Iditarod finish live when Dallas Seavey crossed under the arch in record-breaking time. He said the final stretch along the Northern Sound Coast where Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle stopped because of limited visibility is dangerous when the wind is howling and blowing snow.
With six to eight weeks of recovery ahead of him, Guenther said he didn’t want to go stir-crazy sitting around his home. He accepted an invitation to travel to Florence, Italy with his friend Dr. John Bramante and his family. While sipping on wine he can reflect on the race, which he called a learning experience.
“Stuff happens for a reason,” he said. “I got to hang out with my dogs all winter and compete in a race so many others dream about. I still feel like the luckiest guy around because I got to bond with my dogs.”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com