KALTAG — The chase pack became the lead pack Saturday in the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and now it’s anyone’s race.
Martin Buser’s lead went from huge to modest to tenuous before vanishing completely when Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle snatched the lead from him in Kaltag.
Not that the move put Zirkle in command.
Seven mushers, including Zirkle and Buser, are on the move to Unalakleet and the final one-third of the 1,000-mile race to Nome.
Also in the mix: Nome’s Aaron Burmeister, Sterling’s Mitch Seavey, Big Lake’s Jake Berkowitz, Norway’s Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Willow’s Dallas Seavey.
Ahead of them, 75 miles away from Kaltag, is Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on the Norton Sound coast.
History indicates that whoever gets to Unalakleet first has a great chance of being first to Nome. On 15 of the 22 occasions the “First to the Gold Coast” award has been presented in Unalakleet, the award winner has gone on to win the race.
Buser’s five-hour lead on Friday disappeared Saturday as he broke trail on the wet, windy Yukon River. The Big Lake musher reached Kaltag ahead of the chase pack, but he didn’t have the checkpoint for long. Mitch Seavey got there 73 minutes later.
Zirkle was the seventh to arrive but the first to leave. She spent just enough time to drop two dogs before returning to the trail at 6:11 p.m. with a team of 11.
First to give chase was Burmeister, who left at 8:04 p.m. after a four-hour rest. He’s running 13 dogs.
Three more left in a two-minute span beginning at 8:33 p.m. — Buser, Mitch Seavey and Berkowitz.
And at 9:10 p.m., defending champion Dallas Seavey joined the chase, followed by Ulsom.
Three of the top seven are former champs — Buser, who has earned four Iditarod titles, and the two Seaveys. Mitch won the 2004 race and Dallas held off Zirkle to win last year’s.
The other four are jockeying for their first win.
Ulsom is the great unknown, a rookie from Norway. The others are established contenders.
Zirkle, last year’s runner-up, would be the first woman to win the race since Susan Butcher collected the last of her four victories in 1990.
Burmeister has posted career-bests in his last two Iditarods, placing fourth last year and seventh in 2009.
Berkowitz’s best finish was 31st in 2009, but he is far better than that — last year, he arrived in Unalakleet in sixth place but was withdrawn by officials because of an injury. He cut his hand while using his knife, and officials deemed the injury too severe for him to continue.
Buser moved the slowest on the 60-mile run from Eagle Island to Kaltag.
Buser, who broke trail, made the trip in 11 hours, 43 minutes, with no significant break. Zirkle did it in 12:01 and Dallas Seavey in 10:44, but they rested their teams along the trail.
Mitch Seavey made the run in 9:17, Berkowitz in 9:21, Burmeister in 9:23 and Ulsom in
9:38. Those teams all logged a few hours of rest in Kaltag.
Dallas Seavey stopped for about three hours, meaning his actual run time was in the eight-hour range. Like last year, when he didn’t unleash his team’s full power until the final one-third of the race, Seavey appears to have a wickedly fast team at this point.
Buser, meanwhile, may be paying for his fast start.
A trio of ravens orbited Buser’s sled as he crossed the Yukon River and parked in Kaltag. The dogs know the neighborhood, Buser told Iditarod volunteers.
It seems whatever advantage Buser gained with his surprise 20-hour run to Rohn to start the race is fading. Diarrhea that Buser says the dogs picked up from drinking groundwater at the Iditarod checkpoint still plagues the team, he said.
“In three or four days, they’ll be perfectly fine. It’s just trying to get them to Nome in good shape,” Buser said, rubbing a snout as he kneeled among the dogs. “I was sad because they were looking so super healthy and strong and now they have lost a bit of weight.”
Other race-watchers suspect Buser’s opening gambit is catching up with his young team. It didn’t help that he broke trail in brutal conditions on the way to Kaltag.
“Felt like I was going backwards,” he said.
What exactly was wrong with the route?
“All of the above,” Buser said. “No trail. Lots of wind. No bottom. Lots of water. Snowmachines. Punchy trail.”
One trail-breaker described the route as “mashed potatoes.” A swampy stretch of overflow temporarily sunk the wide-track snowmachine of Iditarod veteran Sebastian Schnuelle. “That’s the first time that’s happened,” Schnuelle said.
Kaltag villagers watched the river Saturday morning with binoculars, awaiting Buser’s arrival. Hauling buckets of water for the dogs, the musher stopped to sign a poster for Kaltag resident Ann Neglaska.
“Good luck Martin Buser, win the last great race!” it read. Funny thing, Neglaska made the sign 11 years ago.
Martin signed it that year too, she said, pointing out where he wrote “happy trails” on his way to his 2002 championship.
Now Buser is trying to become only the second musher, after Rick Swenson, to win a fifth title. He has 11 of his original 16 dogs to do it, and he told reporters in Anvik that he doesn’t fret about reducing the size of his team if it means dropping huskies that can’t maintain speed.
Among the remaining leaders are Rosey Fletcher, one of Buser’s Olympians litter. She steered the team into Kaltag trotting beside a brown-muzzled female named Quick. That dog was a member of the Rohn Buser team until the younger Buser withdrew from the race and Martin assembled an all-star squad from the entire family kennel, Martin said.
Many of his other dogs are 2-year-olds that ran to Nome with kennel teammate Matt Failor last year as puppies.
“They’re a little young for what I’m doing,” Buser said. “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll have an older team next year.”