3 Alaska Native mushers lead the pack as Iditarod racers reach Bering Sea coast

Mar. 13—After a shakeup in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's lead pack this weekend, three Alaska Native mushers are now jockeying to arrive first to Nome as competitors reach the Bering Sea coast in the race's final stages.

Ryan Redington, grandson of Iditarod architect Joe Redington Sr., arrived first into the Norton Sound community of Unalakleet early Sunday morning after making the long 85-mile run over the portage from Kaltag without stopping.

As of Monday morning, Redington's lead was slight and precarious. After his big push to Unalakleet, an Inupiaq community more than 700 miles into the route, he rested for just under four hours. Redington then left at 8:07 a.m. for the run up to Shaktoolik, where he stopped to rest at 1:20 p.m. Pete Kaiser of Bethel — who in 2019 became the first musher of Yup'ik descent to win the Iditarod — arrived in Unalakleet less than an hour later and quickly sped right on through, pausing just long enough to grab supplies from his drop bags.

An hour later, Richie Diehl of Aniak did exactly the same. Both he and Kaiser had paused for a rest along the trail on the portage run, setting themselves up to make it up the coast to Shaktoolik without any long breaks in between. They arrived there and paused at 2:06 p.m., and 3:24 p.m., respectively.

The competition among the front-runners has heated up after defending champion Brent Sass of Eureka pulled out of the race due to health concerns and Brushkana musher Jessie Holmes dropped back on the Yukon River.

[Previously: Dealing with illness and cracked teeth, defending champ Brent Sass scratches from Iditarod]

Redington's grandfather, Joe Sr., was instrumental in pulling together the first Iditarod in 1973, eager to revive long-distance mushing and commemorate its role in connecting disparate corners of Alaska during the territorial era. A trophy of him is presented to each year's winner, though no one from the Redington family — one of the most storied and revered in Alaska dog mushing — has ever been the first to reach Nome in the Iditarod, even as a few have come close.

"It's really special for me to be here in Unalakleet first," Ryan Redington said Sunday morning in an Iditarod Insider video. "My mom, Barbara Ryan, was born here and Unalakleet's in my blood, and I'm very proud to be here."

The crowd, assembled at the checkpoint in spite of the early hour and chilly conditions, cheered heartily.

Though Redington is at the head of the pack, a victory is hardly in the bag. The 40-year-old, who grew up in Knik and now splits his time between Alaska and Wisconsin, is known for his speed. But that's backfired in the past: Of the 15 Iditarods he's entered, he's scratched from seven. That may be behind him, though. In the past three Iditarods, he's finished in the top 10.

Kaiser, close behind him, is a disciplined, consistent musher whose team has been much remarked on by commentators and race veterans in recent days for its strength and vitality at this late stage on the trail.

"Pete Kaiser's team, I'm not sure I've ever seen a team like that," said Iditarod Insider commentator Bruce Lee after watching the dogs leave Unalakleet, barking and energetic as they set off.

"Ryan's out front and he's very rested, very thoughtful, the team ate well and he does have that lead," Lee said. "But I tell you what, he's got a wolverine on his tail."

Redington could keep his edge by running faster in the remaining 200-some-odd miles of trail. Kaiser could pull ahead by pushing slightly longer runs or taking shorter rests. And behind both of them is Diehl, well within striking distance if anything goes wrong, as it often does in the coast's precarious weather. On Sunday afternoon, the forecast for the sea ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk called for temperatures around zero with headwinds blowing out of the north that will make for an unpleasant run.

Jessie Holmes, who was jockeying for first position in the early part of the race, has slipped back a few spots, though he's still among the field's top 10 competitors. Along the lengthy, flat stretches of the Yukon River, he dropped behind and has yet to regain that front standing.

"I felt like I was going slower than drool out there on this last stretch," Holmes told Insider in Kaltag, attributing it in part to using runner plastic poorly suited for the cold conditions along the trail's snow cover. "It was just kinda soft and sticky."

That was far from the only surprise along the Yukon. Sass scratched Saturday morning after taking his eight-hour rest at the Eagle Island checkpoint, citing personal health problems impeding his ability to adequately care for his dogs. On Sunday, Sass shared more about his decision to drop out of the race in a post on social media.

"Unfortunately I had been sick the entire race with a bad cold, chest pain, body aches, sore throat all that progressively got worse as we traveled down the trail," Sass wrote on Instagram. "Then 2 days ago some cracked teeth started giving me issues and over a 12-hour period turned into nearly unbearable pain. My body basically shutdown and for two runs I just hung on. Ultimately I couldn't care for the dogs. Temps dropped to -30F and the combination of all that (led) to some tough decisions."

Sass was flown to Unalakleet and wrote that he'd been getting medical care and was focusing on getting well.

At present, Redington's schedule is a little more than an hour ahead of John Baker's record-breaking win along the southern route in 2011. That year, Baker arrived on Nome's Front Street on Tuesday, March 15, at 9:46 a.m.