SHAGELUK - One minute he was riding on the back of his sled and the next, musher Harald Tunheim was in the snow watching his team trot away into the darkness. For many racers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, that would be the last they would see of their team until the dogs were caught by another musher or got hung up on some obstacle.
But Tunheim simply called out, "Gee, Masi, Gee."
That was a command for his 6-year-old leader to turn right.
The female pricked her ears and swung the team in a circle. Tunheim popped back onto his sled as it passed.
"I call to her, and she comes back and picks me up," he said, recalling the story with a smile as he rested his team in Shageluk along the Yukon River.
A teacher from Alta, Norway, Tunheim has been turning heads all along the Iditarod trail. He's the rare rookie who has managed to stay in or near the top 10 from the beginning. On Monday, he was 15th in Unalakleet, 230 miles from Nome.
"It's amazing. He's totally blown me away," said five-time champion Rick Swenson.
"I haven't seen him make a mistake yet," said Joe Runyan, the 1989 Iditarod champion who is covering this year's race for Lands' End, a clothing retailer.
Despite his rookie status, Tunheim has done well. While veterans know nearly every twist and turn of the trail, Tunheim pulls into checkpoints full of questions.
Where should he park his dogs?
Where can he find water?
Where does he go to sleep?
Sometimes there are no answers.
When he watched defending champion Jeff King leave Rohn, a checkpoint just north of the Alaska Range, he wondered why the veteran wasn't putting booties on his dogs, but he didn't want to ask. A mile out of the checkpoint, Tunheim ran into overflow and understood. Mushers have to change the dogs' booties if they get wet.
"I'm surprised I'm in the position I'm in," Tunheim said, sitting next to his sled in Shageluk as he stirred a broth of tripe seasoned with sprinkles of sugar, salt and powdered Vitamin C.
If he stayed in the top 10, it would be an impressive feat. The best finish by an Iditarod rookie is ninth.
But the real question for Tunheim is, how long can he last?
The longest race his dogs have ever run is the 675-mile Finnmarkslopet, a Scandanavian competition he has won three times. Sven Engholm - the other Norwegian in this year's Iditarod - has won the race 11 times.
While Tunheim is still doing well, some race observers are wondering if his run at the top may not end quickly.
"We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop," said Terry Hinesly, a race judge and former Iditarod racer.
Tunheim harbors no delusions. At the start, he said he would be happy with a top-20 finish.
"I'm a rookie, so this is a first time, he said. "I'm just enjoying this party."
In person, Tunheim is polite and courteous, taking time to answer questions and sign autographs for the dozens of children who greet mushers in the villages.
Tunheim said he got into mushing after a friend gave him two dogs. Now, he has a kennel of 40, which he keeps at the school where he teaches mushing. Students in his class help socialize and train the dogs, he said. Each student takes care of one dog for the yearlong course.
Engholm encouraged Tunheim to try the Iditarod.
The two live about two hours from each other, and flew to Alaska together for the race. Engholm has been a key source of information.
"He ask and ask and ask, all sorts of questions," Engholm said.
Still, the two countrymen haven't had much time to chat on the trail.
"When you race, you run as a lonely wolf," Tunheim said.
While Tunheim's place in the standings surprised some people, it's his dogs that have veterans talking.
The burly animals are nearly half again as big as most Iditarod dogs. One red-haired male named Runne (pronounced Rona) weighs 75 pounds, compared to the 50-pound dogs on most teams.
"She's huge," said four-time winner Susan Butcher. The dogs also are incredibly well-trained, Butcher said.
Pulling into Shageluk, the team appeared to be on remote control as Tunheim parked them next to a tree. Not happy with the direction they were pointed, he walked to the side and called to them. Like a precision marching team, they moved sideways in a line, pivoting around the dog closest to the sled.
Tunheim, who studies wolf behavior, said he tries to be the leader for his team.
"If I make sure they get good food and rest, they will do good," he said.
In some ways, Tunheim says the race in Norway is tougher than the Iditarod. While it lasts only four to five days, it's over more open terrain, and is more exposed to the wind and cold, he said. But it's not the Iditarod. He said he has been struggling to stay awake on the 1,100-mile trip.
"You're in two worlds and you're not sure which world you're in," he said. "You dream a little and talk to people, then all of sudden wake up and there are the dogs."
How will he fare on the last legs of the race? He shakes his head.
"We'll have to see," he said. "It's a long way to Nome."
Anchorage Daily News
March 18, 1999