Norwegian Kjetal Backen led a huge gang of mushers and their teams out of the mountains and on toward the frozen rivers of the vast Alaska Interior on Tuesday as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began to shake out.
No clear leader has yet emerged, but the contenders have clearly pulled away from the pretenders.
The winner is sure to come from within the group who reached the welcoming Athabaskan village of Nikolai within a few hours of Backen at just after 10:30 a.m.
But that is a big group, sporting some big names:
-- Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, the Iditarod runner-up last year was into Nikolai within an hour of the leader.
-- Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, the defending champ, was only three minutes behind his one-time Kenai Peninsula neighbor.
-- Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park was within 10 minutes of Mackey.
-- And former Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling arrived within two hours of Backen.
Were they only ones in the hunt, it would have made for a jam-packed leader board. But there were more, many more.
By 3 p.m., less than five hours after Backen's arrival, a total of 16 teams plugged the checkpoint.
Notably absent was four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake, but a GPS tracking device being carried by lead mushers this year showed he'd stopped about 10 miles out of the village in the morning, possibly to let his team rest during the heat of the day.
Buser bears watching. His dogs have been consistently posing the fastest travel times on the trail. If he can keep them healthy, they could contend.
Resting them in the warmth could be a winning strategy.
Temperatures in the Nikolia area were pushing up near freezing -- warm for the Inteior -- as the Pineapple Express that brought 40-degree weather from the Central Pacific Ocean to come roaring into Anchorage and the Susitna Valley continued to surge north. Temperatures along the southside of the Alaska Range, where back of the pack teams were still laboring up through softening snow, were in the mid- to upper-30s with light rain reported in places.
Two teams back there found the going demanding enough that they decided to give it up. Both former Iditarod runner-up Joe Garnie from Teller and rookie Tom Roig from Shreve, Ohio, cited "health issues" with the their teams.
For dogs like those of Garnie accustomed to the cold, loneliness of the Seward Peninsula north of Nome, just coming to Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod can be stressful. Throw in a couple days of 30- to 40-degree weather, couple it with slogging on softening trail, and it's easy for a bug caught first by one dog to run wildly through the team until all the dogs are looking sick.
Both Roig and Garnie had been lingering near the back of the Iditarod pack since the start of the race Saturday. Roig's position there was to be expected. Rookies never do well in the Iditarod, but Garnie's position was unusual.
He was apparently having problems from the start in what was altogether a star-crossed race for the musher so popular along the Bering Sea Coast. It started with his food drops failing to get shipped to Iditarod checkpoints. There was a mad scramble to get food out on the trail for his team.
Garnie thought he had everything under control by the race start, but it was not to be.