McGRATH -- William Kleedehn tossed chunks of frozen lamb to his lead dog Fajita, a fitting scene on this balmy Wednesday afternoon here on the banks of the Kuskokwim River. The timing of this stop is just right for Kleedehn, an Iditarod rookie but a veteran dog driver.
Kleedehn wanted to reward Fajita, a yearling running the first race of his life. The 2-year-old, along with veteran leader Big Bear, deserved the best meal available. A day earlier, the two dogs helped Kleedehn's team avoid open water in Dalzell Creek and dodge a potential race-ending disaster.
Fajita devoured the treat Kleedehn fed him. Standing on all fours, the dog looked happy, healthy and ready for another long run. Kleedehn, nearing the end of his mandatory 24-hour break, wrapped up the last of his chores and shared his toils so far on the Iditarod Trail.
"The Dalzell Gorge rivals anything in the Yukon Quest," said the 49-year-old German who lives in Carcross, Yukon.
Kleedehn is technically a rookie, but with a far beefier resume than any of the 32 other first-timers who remain on the 1,100-mile trail. He has several times run the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, and he once won the challenging Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race against a tough field.
After surviving a scary brush with disaster, Kleedehn's battle with teenagers Rohn Buser of Big Lake and Melissa Owens of Nome for rookie-of-the-year honors remains alive.
But there was a moment early Tuesday morning when he had his doubts.
Just before dawn, with temperatures in the 30s, Kleedehn was coming down out of the mountains toward the Tatina River about five miles outside the Rohn checkpoint on the north side of the Alaska Range. Running in front of him was Wasilla's Ray Redington Jr. and behind him was Redington's younger brother Ryan Redington.
A few miles back, Ray Redington helped Kleedehn cross open water on Pass Creek. Kleedehn did the same for Ryan Redington.
"He's good to travel with," Ray Redington said. "A real gentleman."
Leading the pack of three, Redington took a sharp curve farther on and dodged a hole in the frozen creek the size of a Volkswagen. The turn was so tricky that Redington couldn't help Kleedehn get past it safely.
"It was a hell of a ride," Redington said. "I was hanging on to my handlebar, hoping it wouldn't break because when I slid, I slid on my back, upside down and got whipped around. I couldn't have been that far from going in that hole."
He eventually got his sled upright and stopped several yards down the river to see if the much-faster Kleedehn dogs could avoid the trap.
The dogs did, but Kleedehn took a swim.
With Fajita and Big Bear in lead, Kleedehn approached the sharp bend. He noticed part of the ice on top had collapsed. Water flowed furiously inside the hole. A tree leaned over the shoreline.
"This was not the place to be," Kleedehn said. "There was just no way I was going to make it out of this in one piece."
As his dogs scurried along the ice to avoid the open water, their momentum swung Kleedehn's sled toward the water -- and the tree. Seconds later, he released his grip on his handlebars and said goodbye to his team.
Letting go was a must, despite the maxim that mushers should never let go of their sled. Had Kleedehn hung on, he would have found himself hydroplaning across the water, or perhaps smacking full force into the tree, then bouncing off and dragging some of the dogs into the water with him and the sled.
Kleedehn had another reason to bail. He's only got one leg. His other is a prosthetic, so he can't dance as well as some other mushers.
"It was a split-second decision," said Kleedehn, who plunged knee-deep into glacial water.
Redington could do nothing to help Kleedehn, so he waited for the Canadian's 16 loose dogs.
"Ray knew I was going to have a heck of a time,'' Kleedehn said. "So when I came around the corner and knew I was going full force into this ice hole, I let the sled go and made sure where I was landing."
Even though he got soaked from the waist down, it was the right choice.
"I ... basically just jumped onto the creek," he said.
And off ran his dogs -- but not for long.
All Kleedehn heard when he pulled himself out of the river was silence. He didn't scream for his leaders to stop.
Still, that's exactly what they did, just 20 yards down the trail and without Redington's assistance.
"When you yell or scream, you just get them excited and they may just run farther," Kleedehn said. "Yelling doesn't make sense to them. That's not a command."
Kleedehn thanked Fajita for waiting. The dog has been out in front since the team left Willow four days ago. Kleedehn believes the yearling could turn into a great leader, if the German transplant returns to the Iditarod.
Kleedehn said spending the thousands of dollars it costs to run the Iditarod is too much. But what he may get out of this year's race -- an experienced lead dog -- could be priceless.
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklottt or 257-4335.