With the threat of a snow storm looming, Ryan Redington, the 18-year-old grandson of race founder Joe Redington, bolted out of Skwentna on Sunday night to grab the early lead in the 29th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Redington, who started 17th at the Willow restart, pulled out of Skwentna at 7:33 p.m. Sunday. He stopped just 23 minutes at the checkpoint at the confluence of the Yentna and Skwentna rivers.
Redington, a rookie, won the Junior Iditarod in 1999. His father Raymie and brother Ray Jr. are also racing.
Three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King was the first to arrive in Skwentna at 5:46 p.m., traveling 76 miles up the Susitna river in under seven hours. King was the first musher out of Willow.
He was followed into Skwentna 14 minutes later by Daniel Govoni of Big Lake. Govoni finished 60th last year.
By 8 p.m., nine mushers had arrived in Skwentna, including ex-champions Martin Buser and Jerry Riley.
Moving Sunday's restart from Wasilla to Willow shortened the run to the Skwentna checkpoint by two or three hours and cut about 30 miles off the race course, said Deby Trosper, restart coordinator.
Most years after leaving Wasilla, the mushers endure a rugged stretch of hilly trail before arriving at the Yentna River for a smoother river run to the Skwentna checkpoint. That first-day stretch can take a toll on even the best dog teams. It was in that part of the trail that four-time champion Susan Butcher's team was attacked by a moose in 1985, forcing her to scratch.
This year, the top teams ran on frozen water in daylight to Skwentna, heading down Rolly Creek to the Susitna River and then up the Yentna River.
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 flat 45 miles to the next checkpoint at Finger Lake. From there, mushers climb into the Alaska Range until reaching the trail's highest point, 3,160-foot Rainy Pass.
<b>Take your rabbit's foot </b>
More than a few Iditarod racers are superstitious.
Sonny King, of Spartanburg, S.C., wears an amulet containing his wedding band and a little ivory sled dog.
Karen Ramstead of Alberta, Canada, has her late father's "lucky coins" in a little felt bag she hangs from her neck. She also carries a feather from a Native friend.
And finally, Cindy Gallea of Seeley Lake, Mont., always wears her "favorite pair of black undies."
<b>Weather or not </b>
Weather was on the minds of many of the mushers as they gave their sleds a last-minute check for required gear. While it was sunny in Willow as the teams set out, forecasts warned of a large storm moving in. If the weather gets bad, the best strategy is to keep moving, King said. Sometimes, however, that's not possible. Mushers have been known to zip themselves inside their sled bags for protection while waiting out storms.
"I can freeze to death just as good as anybody else," joked Charlie Boulding of Manley.
<b>A chance to sleep in </b>
Moving the re-start for the 29th annual race from Wasilla to Willow is certainly more convenient for many mushers. Linwood Fiedler of Willow lives about a mile from the Willow Community Center staging area. DeeDee Jonrowe only lives a few hundred yards farther away.
Juan Alcina lives two miles from the start. Alcina works as an aviation maintenance technician in Anchorage, so his usual commute of 150 miles round-trip is slightly longer.
"I drive to Anchorage every day," said Alcina.
So this means everyone was going to sleep at his house after the ceremonial start, right?
"No," said Alcina.
Let them drive for a change, was his theme.
<b>Gatt the dark horse</b>
Former Iditarod champion Joe Runyan, who's covering the race online for the clothing manufacturer Cabela's, thinks Hans Gatt may be a dark-horse contender this year. "Gatt is probably the best mid-distance racer in the world with a specialty of hammering the competition at the 50- to 60-mile range," writes Runyan. "Hans is also a workout fanatic and a weekend competitor in triathlons, marathons and bike racing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but DeeDee Jonrowe, Gatt and Thomas Tetz (of Carcross, Yukon Territory) are probably the most seriously in-shape mushers on this year's trail.
Runyan predicts Gatt, from Atlin, B.C., will break into the top five this year. Gatt, 43, as improved in each of his previous three Iditarods, last year slicing more than 30 hours off his previously fastest time to wind up 12th.
Daily News reporter Wesley Loy and sports editor Lew Freedman contributed to this report.