Update: Lance Mackey was the first to leave the Rohn checkpoint at 8:24 p.m. Monday on the 75 mile trail to Nikolai. By 4:36 a.m. today, 18 mushers had taken to the trail across the Fairwell Burn. Among them was Rohn Buser, leaving the checkpoint he was named for a little more than half an hour behind his father, four-time champ, Martin, and leading all rookies in the race.
SKWENTNA -- Wet snowflakes fell Monday on a pair of mushers camped on the Skwentna River -- one taking her time, the other frustrated. Ahead, 93 other teams were long gone, making tracks up the trail toward the Alaska Range.
The leaders of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were already at Puntilla Lake at the head of Rainy Pass. By late afternoon, many took off down the 1,100-mile trail like it was the autobahn.
Back here, rookie Kim Franklin from England ignored the rush. She was enjoying Skwentna, where the pace of life is generally slow. Bringing up the rear relaxes this rookie, who has been a farmer living 40 miles outside of London for the last six years.
"It doesn't affect my race at all," she said in a thick British accent. "I just want to get to Nome. This is probably my only chance to run this race."
Tending 16 sled dogs owned by 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, the 40-year-old Franklin took her time as she slipped booties on each of their feet. The tedious job of protecting 64 paws gave her time to reflect on how it feels to be at the end of the longest sled dog race in the world.
"It just makes you realize how darn good they are and how fast they're running," she said about the gang blazing to Rainy Pass and on to Rohn, at least 70 miles up the trail. "I've been lulled into a false sense of security, being on the river this long. I know I've got the toughest stuff coming up."
High up on the river bank, wood smoke billowed from the stack of the town's only post office. The smell drifted down to the river, where the checkpoint crew was busy cleaning straw and hauling food bags mushers left behind.
Snowmachiners loaded with gear and people buzzed past and disappeared into the woods, headed for the airstrip. A handful of Bush planes waited there. Pilots felt crunched for time with the snow falling harder and the ceiling getting lower by the minute. Most of their passengers were hoping to hop farther up the trail, but with visibility near zero toward the Range, a trip back to Anchorage was inevitable.
On a dog sled, though, the weather was quite pleasant, despite temperatures in the 20s.
Franklin planned to move on soon, but she was in no hurry.
"I'm not planning to get to Rainy Pass until ... what day is it? Monday?" she asked. "I'll be there (today).
"If I were to keep up with those (front) guys I'd be a fool. It's like trying to keep up with an Indy car."
Trent Herbst of Homer, the other musher here, had higher aspirations. He planned to be in the middle of the pack until he took a detour down the wrong trail in the pre-dawn darkness Monday. What he thought were trail markers leading to the checkpoint were actually old markers someone used to mark the way to a cabin.
"I was just following the trail markers," he said. "There were blue (reflective) markers all the way up."
Running beneath a starlit sky around 5 a.m., Herbst's headlamp painted the blue glow of what he thought were Iditarod trail markers for miles. Then he reached a dead end. The path led into woods and a dark cabin.
"I ended up running into somebody's driveway," he said. "I went right through his yard."
A cabin light turned on. A man opened the front door.
"You are way off the trail," the man told Herbst, a 37-year-old Wisconsin native. "Go back where you came from."
At the time, Herbst was crushed. His goal was to finish the race in 13 days, improving on a 2006 rookie time of a little more than 14 days. That put him 65th out of 71 mushers.
As he slipped booties on his dogs' feet Monday, he was still hoping to do better this year despite 6 1/2 hours lost.
"I'm hoping I can catch up," he said as frost dangled from his bushy red beard. "I just figure, 'Don't do it in one shot.' "
Herbst said he turned around his dogs about 15 times, trying to find the right trail markers to Skwentna. All told, it took him 10 hours, 52 minutes to travel the 35 miles from Yentna Station to this checkpoint.
"They were looking at me like, 'What's going on?' " Herbst said of his dogs.
Once he reached Skwentna, Herbst was frustrated but looked on the bright side.
He ate delicious sandwiches inside Joe and Norma Delia's comfortable log home.
"They treat you like kings here," he said. "Great food, great view, great sandwiches.
"I got a good nap, the dogs got a good nap and now I'm just hoping the snow's not too deep up ahead,'' he said.
Herbst eventually departed Skwentna six minutes ahead of Franklin.
She expects to finish. Nine of her 16 dogs have passed beneath the burled arch in Nome, so she's hoping they can lead her to the finish line without many problems. But there are a lot of challenges out there.
What Franklin has faced so far on the Iditarod, she confessed, is a monumental change from anything on the three-mile loop where she learned to race dogs in England. She owns eight Siberian huskies and malemutes back home in the quiet, 400-person village of Cottered.
"You just can't compare it," she said. "It's a completely different sport."
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.