Kasilof musher Jon Little led a group of four mushers into Skwentna on Sunday night to forge a narrow lead in the first 100 miles of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Little, a Daily News reporter, arrived at the small town at the confluence of the Yentna and Skwentna rivers at 9:50 p.m. with a full contingent of 16 dogs.
Just three minutes behind him was Cindy Gallea, a nurse practitioner from Seeley Lake, Minn.
Little and Gallea have both run the Iditarod once before, neither threatening to win. Little finished 36th last year as a rookie, and Gallea was 48th in 1998.
Knik's Raymie Redington, the 44-year-old son of Iditarod founder Joe Redington, was third, pulling into Skwentna at 10:05 p.m. Not far behind him was Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who arrived at 10:13.
In a 10-race Iditarod career, Raymie Redington has only finished in the top 20 twice. But Gebhart, 43, is an up-and-coming musher who's gotten better with each Iditarod, improving from 26th in 1996 to sixth last year. He won the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race in January (Little finished fourth), his first major championship.
Also impressive in the early going was how quickly Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe moved to the front. Jonrowe, the 37th musher to leave Wasilla, was third into Yentna, the checkpoint 66 miles from Wasilla.
Jonrowe has characterized this Iditarod as a rebuilding year after her team refused to run on the Yukon River last year, forcing her to scratch for the first time.
Two weeks ago, Jonrowe said she had a mishap with her new lead dog, 3-year-old Softail. An ice hook snagged his back leg while she was practicing with another team. The injury required 10 stitches.
"I couldn't cry. I couldn't say anything. I just picked him up and put him in the sled," she said.
The dog's injury healed. Now she is relying on him to lead the way 1,100 miles to Nome. But, just in case, she has two other dogs that could lead the team.
While warm temperatures slowed the mushers Sunday, it made a good day for race fans, who turned the Yentna River into center stage. Dozens of snowmobilers waited for mushers, many of whom camped during the heat of the day to avoid dehydrating their dogs early in the race.
Some teams camped in the spruce and birch trees beside Flathorn Lake, about a third of the way between Wasilla and Skwentna.
North of Flathorn, the frozen Yentna River was a highway, with hard-packed trails lacing its surface and impromptu gatherings of snowmobilers gathered to cheer on the mushers.
Temperatures dipped when the sun faded, but there was no chance they'd drop below zero, as they often have in past Iditarods.
Usually, the first-day stretch is smooth - but it can take a toll even on the best dog teams.
In 1985, four-time champion Susan Butcher's team was stomped by a moose in this stretch, forcing her to scratch. And five-time champion Rick Swenson lost the only dog he's ever lost near Skwentna in 1996.
But first day of racing is seldom indicative of who will arrive first in Nome. In 1995, for instance, Diana Moroney of Chugiak was the first musher to Skwentna. She eventually scratched.
After leaving Skwentna, the trail heads through spruce timber and cottonwoods to Shell Creek. Dotted spruce stands amid open swamps characterize the rest of the generally 45 miles to the next checkpoint at Finger Lake.
YOU CAN'T OUTRUN THE SANDMAN: Mushers can't outrun their need for sleep on the 1,150-mile Iditarod trail through Alaska's wilderness.
Eventually it takes over, impairing their judgment, forcing their eyes shut while riding the runners, and sometimes causing hallucinations, said Anne Morris, medical director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
The situation can be hazardous, she said.
A person who gets five hours of sleep for just a few nights has the impaired reactions of someone who is legally drunk, Morris said, assuming that person needs eight hours of sleep normally.
"When you have long-distance competitive races like this, they become very sleep-deprived. That becomes potentially a danger because of failure of vigilance. They need to sleep," she said.
Eventually, say halfway through the race, some mushers will begin to hallucinate because the need for deep sleep breaks through, Morris said.
"There will be such a pressure for dream sleep built up you will begin to dream - but you are awake," she said.
At that point, most mushers are racing on autopilot. Morris says that works well enough in normal conditions.
"That is fine if you don't have a moose walk in front of your team," Morris said.
Dogs don't suffer nearly as much from sleep deprivation because they are excellent nappers. Morris recommends mushers take the lesson.
"Sleep wherever and whenever you can," she recommends.
Veterinarians checked over the dogs prior to the start of the race, checking everything from the toughness of the dogs' feet to whether they were carrying enough body fat. A typical dog loses about 10 pounds between Anchorage and Nome.
In an effort to understand more about sled dogs, electrocardiograms were done on 1,650 dogs this year, all the dogs who could compete. The effort was begun in 1994 to weed out dogs with heart problems, usually one and two dogs each year, said Ken Hinchcliff, an associate professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, who is studying the dogs.
The hearts of sled dogs are so big that vets at first glance would think the dogs suffered from heart disease. They look more like those found in rowers, large and muscled, rather than the hearts of marathoners, he said.
The tests also showed that between one-third and one-half of the dogs have heart murmurs. Hinchcliff said the condition is normal and "a function of getting fit."