TAKOTNA -- An armada of about a dozen mushers was on the move across one of the most desolate stretches of the frozen Alaska Interior this afternoon as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race neared the halfway mark at the ghost town of Iditarod.
Aaron Burmeister from Nenana led the way out of the old gold camp of Ophir with a group of former champions and contenders close behind. The first to Iditarod stands to claim a halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets, but with the trail reported soft and slow, none of the contenders was expected to risk tiring his dogs in a race to get there.
From Iditarod to Nome is still a tough 500 miles.
With most mushers having now completed the 24-hour stop required somewhere along the 1,000 miles of trail, the lead pack was taking shape. Burmeister was joined on the trail out of Ophir by Skagway's Hugh Neff and two-time defending champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks. Mackey had the fastest team on the trail between Takotna and Ophir, but the tough trail reported to be ahead could negate that advantage.
Behind Mackey came Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, the winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race at the end of last month; Ken Anderson from Fairbanks, the Quest runner-up last year; four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park, the Iditarod runner-up last year; Mitch Seavey from Seward, the 2004 Iditarod champ and Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race winner in January; Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, a two-time Iditarod runner-up trying to take that final step; and John Baker from Kotzebue, a musher who finishes in the top 10 almost every year.
Everyone expected the trail ahead to be tough. Deep snow in the Interior made it difficult to pack in, and then more snow fell to bury everything across a 150-mile stretch of wilderness. Over all that distance, there isn't even a village. The only people other than the mushers out there now are some trailbreakers on snowmobiles.
"It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out you don't want to be way ahead," King said Wednesday night. "My guess that is something (Burmeister) is well aware of."
Burmeister, however, wasn't sure he could hold back the 13 feisty dogs left in his team.
"They're eating and drinking and happy," Burmeister said on Wednesday. "They about pulled the hooks out, and that was just for feeding time.
"My breed is bigger than most -- 55-60 pound dogs. They're solid trotters," he said. "I don't have any rock stars. I don't have anybody I can't live without. They're all veterans (and) everyone is stepping up. I've been building it for 10 years."
That span has included nine Iditarods with a top finish of 13th in 2007. But never before has Burmeister experienced the sort of magical run he's enjoying this year.
"It's just been one of those races where everything's been clicking," he said.
Whether it keeps on clicking is anyone's guess. The trail is expected to make life difficult for everyone until mushers reach the Norton Sound coast.
Ray Redington was thinking about that as he stood puffing a cigarette outside the village church here Thursday morning.
"I don't smoke," he said. "But a race like this drives a man to smoke."
His younger brother, Ryan, walked out of the church after waking from a nap.
"How you doing, buddy?" asked Ray.
"Pretty good," said Ryan. "How are you?"
"Good. "You're dogs are resting good. Slept good, huh?" said Ray. "I'm about to waddle over to Ophir."
"I wonder how it's going to be out of here," Ryan said. "I'd be nice to know how long it takes those guys to get to Don's Cabin."
Don's Cabin is a shelter halfway along the 90-mile trail from Ophir to Iditarod. Unfortunately for the Redingtons, there are no communications from the cabin.
"It could be a detriment or a severe advantage of being first," Burmeister said. "But the beauty of it is it's my option. If I want to pull over and let someone else break trail, all I gotta do is camp. If things are going good for me, I just keep going.
"I'll be the trailbreaker more or less," he said. "I understand they've got a couple feet of snow in the last two days."
He noted the frontrunners could be slowed by new snow, but it's not a given it will make the trail worse.
"That might be an advantage to have a base underneath fresh fluffy snow. If the snowmachines get out ahead of me, they'll churn it up and make it slow," he said. "As long as there's a base underneath four or five inches of snow, that's a good thing for me."
Behind the lead mushers, four-time champ Martin Buser was still finishing out his 24-hour layover in Ophir. He was the only musher to push that far before taking the break. It remains to be seen if his gambit pays off.
He'll be coming off his long break near sunset as the cooler evening temperatures arrive.
Schnuelle, who won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race about two weeks ago, said he was a bit surprised to find himself so close to the front this late in the race.
"It must be the other guys are a little slower than they thought they'd be," he said, as he tightened a bolt and replaced sled runners while his dogs slept in Takotna on Wednesday.
The small town of Takotna has a reputation for giving Iditarod mushers the biggest welcome, and tempting them off the trail with homemade pies and the soothing sounds of Merle Haggard playing on the stereo in the community center.
The mushers resting there had decided it was better to wait and let the trail set up and become less punchy. Four-time champion Jeff King said there is so much snow this year, and the snow banks are so high, he can't even see his leaders going around corners.
A cooling trend is expected by the weekend, according to the National Weather Service, which could firm up the trail. Temperatures are expected to dip as low as minus-20 at night.