UPDATE: As of 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, only Martin Buser was reported in Ophir. Jim Lanier was on the trail from Takotna while 31 other mushers remained bunched up at that checkpoint.
TAKOTNA -- Four-time champ Martin Buser was in the old gold camp of Ophir at the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday night, but he was not in the lead.
Aaron Burmeister from Nenana appeared to be in the lead, but he wasn't at the front.
And every musher was wondering and worrying about the trail west through the Innoko River country -- a land so vast and deserted the best known community is a ghost town.
Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, pulled into this checkpoint behind Burmeister and Skagway's Hugh Neff not long past 3 a.m. Wednesday.
Schnuelle said the first people to greet him said, "We hope you do your 24 here, because there's no trail past Ophir.''
Schnuelle parked his team. It spent the day here with more than 20 others.
The trail past Ophir, another 25 miles beyond Takotna, was the topic of much discussion as mushers served the mandatory 24-hour breaks all teams are required to do somewhere along the route.
A few of the other top contenders were 20 miles back in McGrath biding their time on layover as well, and everyone was expecting Buser to park at Ophir.
"I'm sure he'll 24 at Ophir, which makes sense,'' said two-time Iditarod runner-up Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof. "There's a trail to Ophir.''
Beyond that, nobody is sure what exists. Longtime Iditarod volunteer Dick Newton and a gang of others earlier this month opened a route stretching for 155 miles to the village of Shageluk on the Innoko River, but it was reported to have blown in.
There is no local traffic between Ophir and Shageluk to keep the snow along the route packed. Shageluk is an Ingalik Indian village of about 140 people. Ophir is deserted except when Dick Forsgren visits his cabin there.
And between these two points of little and nothing on the map, there is only Iditarod, a ghost town.
It is about 90 miles out from Ophir. It is another 65 from there on to Shageluk.
Fortunately, said Schnuelle, he had some idea of trail conditions when he planned for his 24.
"My other plan was Grayling,'' he said, "but with soft snow, I definitely wouldn't have gone there. We're all kind of bunched up (now), and I guess we'll all be breaking trail. It's very much fun. Normally, I never see those (front-running) guys."
A transplanted German, Schnuelle finished in the Iditarod's top 10 for the first time last year and is fresh off a victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race a couple weeks ago. Though he has never paced the Iditarod before, he is doing it now along with Neff, the Quest runner-up, and Burmeister.
Burmeister has run 11 Iditarods since his start as a 19-year-old musher, but he too, is new to the experiencing of leading.
The only one with any experience running near the front is Neff, who has a reputation for letting his team go out too fast and paying the price later. He alluded to that here Wednesday night.
"I made it in by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin,'' he said. "We're definitely not falling apart, but I couldn't have gone any farther.''
Neff's team was traveling less than 6 mph on the 20-mile run from McGrath. Most of the other contenders were still making better than 6 mph with 2004 champ Mitch Seavey hitting almost 7 mph. What remains to be seen is how the teams look coming off the long rest, and whether speed will matter.
"I think I have a winning team,'' Neff said, but "this is all coming down to Kaltag, pretty much, or Unalakleet. It's just going to be a brutal trail (to there). I don't think it's ever going to set up. Everybody who's up here has a shot.
"I think I've got the weaker team physically, but I've got the stronger speed, and a team with a lot of heart.''
Whether he can bring that speed into play depends on whether the trail is hard and fast or soft and slow. Many seemed to agree with his assessment that it might prove to be the latter all the way to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast almost 400 miles ahead.
Tough trail would tend to favor the move by Buser, who was off the pace early, and who will have to sit in Ophir and watch a bunch of teams go past today. But if they head off toward Iditarod only to bog down in deep snow, he could catch them easily with a team that has more rest.
"It's probably a good move,'' Gebhardt said.
At the race start, Buser said that given the conditions, one of the keys to his strategy was giving his team as much rest as possible early in the race. Five-time champ Rick Swenson, who let his team run like crazy when the trail was good, but then backed off as it slowed down, went in plotting much the same.
They could both still end up in the hunt for another victory, though both were behind the lead bunch here which included, along with those already mentioned, two-time and defending champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks and four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park, the runner-up last year.