UNALAKLEET -- Feeling melancholy from pouring the ashes of his dead lead dog on the Yukon River, Paul Gebhardt dug deep for happiness late Saturday when he watched green northern lights dance in the sky.
Traveling in and out of the fog banks between Nulato and Kaltag, the lights illuminated the sky so brightly that even Gebhardt's dogs took notice. Running with their ears pinned back from a slight headwind, all but one dog looked to the heavens and watched the aurora borealis show.
"I'd never seen them do that," Gebhardt said. "It was something out of a Disney movie.
"I was just laughing," he said. "It would have been a beautiful picture."
Hours before, Gebhardt had been mourning Governor, a 4-year-old that died suddenly four months ago at the musher's Kasilof kennel. Gebhardt took out a bag with ashes of his prized lead dog and spread them along the Iditarod Trail.
Governor was just reaching his prime when he died Nov. 2. He had led Gebhardt to a second-place finish in last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But Governor, a rock eater all his life, swallowed a quarter-sized rock and it killed him.
Instead of burying him near the kennel, Gebhardt decided to spread Governor's ashes at Bishop Rock -- the halfway point between Ruby and Kaltag where Governor often ran best.
"He was always good on the river," Gebhardt said. "So it made sense."
With 13 dogs traveling by the glow of Gebhardt's headlamp, he cut a hole in the bottom of the bag and let Governor's ashes spill out as the team ran.
"Mitch (Seavey) was right behind me, so his team was running right through Governor," Gebhardt said. "That's probably why he's ahead of me now. He's got Governor dust."
Gebhardt rested his dogs here Sunday night in this Bering Sea town with Iditarod leaders Lance Mackey and Jeff King miles up the trail. He was in the middle of a tight race for third place.
Among his competitors were Kjetil Backen of Norway, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Ken Anderson of Fairbanks and Martin Buser of Big Lake. By Monday morning, all six mushers -- plus Canadian Hans Gatt -- had reached Shaktoolik within 30 minutes of one another.
But Gebhardt said he doesn't plan to cut rest or take long runs. Days ago he lost precious time driving into Cripple, throwing his race plan out of whack. Gebhardt fell asleep and thought he had passed the checkpoint, which marks the halfway point in the 1,100-mile race.
Driving four extra miles cost Gebhardt $3,500 in gold, another trophy to place on his mantel at home and any hope of catching Mackey or King.
"I was falling in and out of sleep, woke up and looked at my watch," said Gebhardt, who thought, "I must have missed the turn. I turned around about two miles before the checkpoint. If I had kept going I would have been there."
He saw a light ahead and thought it was another disoriented musher. But the light belonged to Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe, headed the right direction.
Jonrowe thought the light coming her way was a snowmachiner.
But as the light approached, Jonrowe thought that maybe it was a trapline team. She stopped her dogs as the unknown musher approached.
"I think we've missed it,' the musher said.
"No, no. We're not there yet," Jonrowe said.
His headlamp blinded Jonrowe, so she couldn't see the musher's face. She thought the voice was that of Big Lake's Cim Smyth.
Not until Jonrowe pulled into Cripple did she realize she was talking to Gebhardt. But it took some convincing by the checkpoint crew.
"I kept thinking Paul had been (in Cripple) and they were joking with me," Jonrowe said. "The lights were so bright we couldn't see each other."
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.