The Widow's Light Has Been Extinguished
Historically, road house operators would leave a red lantern lighted to help guide teams that were out on the trail. When the last musher arrived at the road house he would blow out the lantern, signifying that everyone was in safe shelter. This year, Iditarod rookie Celeste Davis of Deer Lodge, Montana did the honors as she passed under the burled arch at Nome at 8:06 pm last night.
As I write, the racers are gathered at the finish banquet. This is the first time in many years that all the mushers were in before the start of the banquet. There are usually a few stragglers remaining out on the trail. Tonight they gather for a feast, regale their fans with tales of the challenges, adventures and misadventures of the race trail. Prize money and trophies will be awarded. Once I know who has won the special awards I'll try to post an update here on the blog.
The end of this year's Iditarod will, in some respects, mark the end of an era. Jeff King has vowed to retire from "serious" long-distance racing though his future almost certainly includes driving sled dogs in some endeavor or another.
It may be a while before we see another "Idita-Quest" champion. Lance Mackey has stated that he can no longer endure the rigors of back-to-back long distance races. He'll have to choose one race over the other, and I'm betting he'll choose the larger paycheck of the Iditarod. Hans Gatt has also vowed to retire after this season, and even promised his significant other that he will do so. Sebastian Schnuelle also seems to be winding down his career.
A few venerable old-timers will no doubt persist. Such is the lure of the long trails that men and women of action find them difficult to resist. Nonetheless, I think it safe to say that some doors are opening for the new class of champions to come into their own.
Make no mistake, there are some great young mushers out there who will be delighted to add their names to the short lists of long-distance mushing greats. Ken Anderson, Ramey Smyth and Dallas Seavey are all young guys with proven abilities. At 47, John Baker still has a lot of years left to make his mark. Ray Redington Jr and Zach Steer are a couple more young mushers who will likely give us years of entertainment. Josh Cadzow gave a great performance in his rookie run on the Yukon Quest as did Abbie West.
It's been a while since a woman musher has won either of the big long distance races, but there are some very talented ladies out there working hard to become the next. Aliy Zirkle may be the most well known, but Jessica Royer has been racing dogs a good long while and she knows what she's about.
As we watch some of the old timers retire or scale back their racing endeavors it's tempting to claim that the "glory days are over". I'd say it's a little bit early to make such predictions. From the looks of the young talent out there running sled dogs, I'm willing to claim that the glory days are yet to come.