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Iditarod update: Musher Gunnar Johnson withdrawn from race after testing positive for COVID-19 at McGrath

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published 5 days ago

Gunnar Johnson and his dog team travel down the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Update, 8 p.m. Wednesday:

Veteran musher Gunnar Johnson of Duluth, Minnesota, whose team was running at a good pace early in the race, was withdrawn Wednesday afternoon after testing positive for COVID-19 at the McGrath checkpoint.

He is asymptomatic and did not come into close contact with race personnel or community members, nor did he enter any buildings or community spaces in McGrath, race officials said Wednesday night.

“He is incredibly disappointed and felt his dog team looked great,” according to a prepared statement from the Iditarod.

Johnson, 52, was running dogs from Jim Lanier’s Chugiak kennel. It was his third Iditarod — he placed 48th in 2017 and 54th in 1991.

Johnson was immediately notified of his positive result and was removed from the checkpoint area by the race’s COVID-19 team, officials said. He is isolating in McGrath in an unknown location.

All mushers are being tested just outside the McGrath checkpoint using a rapid antigen test. When Johnson’s rapid antigen test came back positive, he was retested twice with a molecular-based COVID-19 test and both results came back positive, officials said.

Update, 7 p.m. Wednesday:

Brent Sass of Eureka reached the Iditarod checkpoint at 6:08 p.m. Wednesday after nearly 14 hours on the trail from Ophir.

He hasn’t taken any mandatory layovers yet -- he’s been camping on the trail instead of spending time at checkpoints since the start of the race on Sunday -- so he’s expected to settle in for a long stay at the remote spot.

Sass collected the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award as the first musher to this year’s turnaround point. He gets his choice of prizes -- $3,000 in gold nuggets or a smartphone with a year of GCI service.

Brent Sass rounds a corner on the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 7, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Original story:

ON THE TRAIL: A handful of team passed Ophir on their way to the midway point of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, while behind them four-time champion Dallas Seavey prepared to leave McGrath after a 24-hour layover.

Once Seavey leaves, he’ll be one of first in the race to compete his mandatory 24-hour layover. Gunnar Johnson of Minnesota was near the front the pack before taking his long break in Nikolai, and Rick Casillo of Talkeetna spent a day in Rohn.

The trail leader is Brent Sass of Eureka, who still has 40 hours of mandatory layover time to take. He was in and out of Ophir quickly early Wednesday morning, spending 11 minutes there before beginning the 80-mile run to Iditarod at 4:21 a.m. behind team of 14 dogs. He’ll probably take his 24 hours at Iditarod.

The remote Iditarod checkpoint became the race’s official turnaround point Wednesday morning, when officials decided to eliminate the 20-mile loop that would have taken teams to the abandoned mining town of Flat. Too much snow made it difficult to put in a trail, officials said.

Iditarod is at mile 416 of what is now a 832-mile race.

Aaron Peck of Alberta and Mille Porsild of Denmark also left Ophir after little time at the checkpoint on Monday. Peck left at 8:32 a.m. after a seven-minute stay; Porsild left at 10:22 a.m. after stopping for four minutes.

Peck hasn’t taken any mandatory layovers but Porsild, the 2020 rookie of the year, took an eight-hour rest in McGrath.

Seavey is poised to leave McGrath at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Jesse Royer walks her dogs past spare sleds sent out during her 24-hour rest in McGrath during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday. (Zachariah Hughes/for ADN)

OUT OF THE RACE: Brenda Mackey of Two Rivers scratched Wednesday morning in Nikolai. She was running a team of nine dogs and had taken an eight-hour layover in Rohn.

Mackey is part of the Iditarod’s fabled Mackey family — she’s the granddaughter of race pioneer and 1978 champion Dick Mackey and the daughter of 1983 champion Rick Mackey.

She’s the third musher to drop out of the race, which began Sunday at Deshka Landing with a field of 46 teams.

TRIVIA TIME: Dick Mackey’s 1978 Iditarod victory came in the race’s first and only photo finish. He beat Rick Swenson by one second with a total time of 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes, 24 seconds. The winner was decided by the nose of the lead dog across the finish line -- a decision made on the spot by race officials.

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