Yukon Quest champion Schnuelle leads pack into Finger Lake

March 9, 2009 

Not another Iditarod-Yukon Quest double.

As unlikely as it may be to repeat what Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey has accomplished the past two years, Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, was the first musher to Finger Lake before dawn on Monday.

About two weeks ago, Schnuelle staged a remarkable come-from-behind victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, and he came to the Iditarod brimming with enthusiasm.

"It felt good," he said of a Quest victory helped by a storm that slowed the leaders and allowed him to make up a deficit of more than six hours. "I'm definitely going to be more confident here."

Schnuelle was in and out of Finger Lake by 6:13 Monday morning.

Five other mushers followed him into Finger Lake in the darkness. Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt, a two-time Iditarod runner-up, arrived 40 minutes after Schnuelle. Ed Iten of Kotzebue was 39 minutes behind Gebhardt. Then came the biggest surprise among the front-runners, young Melissa Owens of Nome, the former Junior Iditarod champ,who finished 30th in her rookie run to her hometown last year.

"We've got a young team this year," she said at the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on Saturday. "Last year I had a bunch of experienced dogs. This year half my team is 3 (years old) and under so we're going to take it easy and just have fun and try and get as many of them home as possible."

Twenty-three minutes behind Owens was the winningest musher in Iditarod history, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers. A win this year would give Swenson a championship in every decade of the 37-year-old race.

With light snow falling as a remind of all that awaits on the 1,000-mile trail to Nome, a big pack of frontrunners was charging into the lead of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race before dawn Monday.

The first musher to leave Skwentna, the previous checkpoint 30 miles from Finger Lake, was veteran Mat-Su musher Ramey Smyth, who finished a surprising third last year behind his aging 10-year old lead dog, Babe. Smyth pulled out the Skwentna checkpoint at 10:08 p.m.

"Obviously, you're not going to want to get too far behind if there's a lot of weather," he said before Sunday's restart in Willow. "No matter how good your team is, you can get stuck way back.

Flashing early speed Sunday night was two-time defending champion Mackey and hard-luck Yukon Quest runner-up Hugh Neff .

Mackey, of Fairbanks,a veraged 11.46 mph while Neff, of Skagway, was a tad quicker, posting an 11.59 mph speed.

With 30 minutes to go before he started down the trail from Willow on Sunday afternoon, Mackey was still mulling which dogs to put in his team. One who made the cut is the leader who delivered him first to Nome last year, 9-year-old Larry.

"The last two (victories) boosted my confidence really good," he said. "I have as good a shot as anybody."

By dawn Monday, some 47 teams had pushed through the Skwentna checkpoint and were on the way to Finger Lake. They were passing through an area often hard hit by snowfall.

Clearly, getting near the front before the racers had carved out nasty holes amid twisting turns was important.

Making perhaps the biggest move into Skwentna was veteran musher Aaron Burmeister of Nenana. He was the 55th musher to leave the Willow start line and by early Monday he'd already passed 44 racers.

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