Fresh, soft snow was slowing the pace as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moved into the Alaska Range Monday, but not by much.
With daytime temperatures starting to rise toward the freezing mark, defending champ Lance Mackey and his 16 dogs led the teams into the Rainy Pass checkpoint shortly before noon. He was only about 20 minutes off the pace set by Mitch Seavey of Sterling last year, but well off the 10 a.m. arrival of Cim Smyth from Big Lake in 2007.
Neither of the latter two mushers went on to win the Iditarod those years, which underlines the insignificance of being in the lead at this point.
The Last Great Race is a 1,000-mile ultramarathon, and what really matters over the long haul is holding a steady pace, though none of the leaders wants to fall too far back. Some of the top contenders Sunday expressed concerns about the condition of the trail if they get too far back.
The more dogs go over the route, the more the snow tends to get churned, and that slows teams down. The difference can be a matter of minutes or hours.
It is worth nothing Smyth sped north on a rock-hard, pavement-like trail in 2007 and saved almost an hour and a half on the run to Rainy. Nowhere along the trail are rock-hard pavement conditions expected this year. There is a lot of snow in the Alaska Range and near record snows in the Interior.
Deep new snow north of the range also have mushers worrying about ground blizzards coming up if the winds start to blow.
With some snow blowing around at Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge Monday, the teams parked on the ice of Puntilla Lake for a midday break. Mackey was quickly joined by Norwegian Bjornar Anderson; Ramey Smith from Wasilla; former Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champs Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers; Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada; and four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park.
Another big pack of contenders appeared to be camped somewhere down along the Happy River or among the snow-covered beaver ponds north of the Finger Lake checkpoint. That bunch included Seavey and Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, the surprise winner of this year's Quest.
Schnuelle and his dogs led the teams into Finger Lake shortly after 6 a.m., but they stayed there only long enough to grab straw and food. That's usually a sure sign the musher plans to camp somewhere outside the checkpoint.
Home to popular Winterlake Lodge, Finger Lake attracts considerable airplane traffic as spectators flock to watch the Iditarod move north. For that reason, the lead mushers don't consider it a particularly good place to give the dogs a rest.
Rainy Pass is thought to be better, but it too attracts an increasing number of sightseers. It is the last easily accessible checkpoint from Anchorage. Beyond there, the trail becomes a lot more remote.
For the mushers at Rainy, a long stretch of difficult trail up and over the pass awaits. The weather looked generally good Monday afternoon, but the winds in the pass sometimes pick up unexpectedly. And even if the run through goes smoothly, a difficult trail awaits on the drop down out of the mountains through the Dalzell Gorge to the Rohn checkpoint in the Tatitna River.
After days of warring with Mother Nature, volunteers on snowmobiles only days ago managed to get a trail built through this section.
Along the Dalzell Creek, they were slowed by deep snow and broken ice, which in places left steep, icy ramps down into cold, flowing water. To make the route passable to men and dogs, a trail crew led by Terry Boyle had to either bridge those areas or bring in enough snow - in cases where there was new ice at the bottom of the ramps - to fill the holes so dog teams wouldn't drop down one side and find themselves unable to claw out the other.