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OLD WOMAN CABIN - For a while Monday, it looked like a camping trip at this small log cabin 40 miles from Unalakleet.
A half-dozen Iditarod dog teams were parked outside. Inside, their drivers - including Rick Mackey, Joe Garnie and Christopher Knott - warmed up in front of a wood stove and snacked on bags of food, including pizza, jerky and M&Ms. They talked strategy and past Iditarod trips.
But mostly the mushers worked on drying out - drying boots, drying pants and drying themselves after getting soaked on a stretch of trail a half-mile back.
These teams had made it through two snow storms, survived minus-60 windchill on the Yukon River and coped with miles of bone-rattling trail early in the race. Now Mother Nature had thrown them another hurdle - overflow.
On a creek a half-mile from the cabin was 300 yards of crystal-blue deceptively solid-looking ice that had sent team after team floundering into knee-deep overflow.
"They told us there was overflow," said Knott, as he dried his boots in front of the wood stove. "They didn't say anything about it being that bad."
Knott had come through the stretch fairly well, not falling in as other mushers had.
"Hike! Hike!" he called to his leaders, Hotfoot and Chance, as the team plunged into chest-deep water. The dogs floundered in the icy overflow but kept swimming ahead, pulling themselves up on solid ice.
"Good dogs. Good dogs," Knott told them, as he stopped his team and tossed snow on their coats to soak up the moisture.
Sonny King, the musher from South Carolina, was sitting next to Knott at the cabin wringing cupfuls of water from his boot liners. His crossing had been much worse.
King's team had balked at the overflow, trying to go sideways on the ice instead of into the water. The dogs balled up, ignoring King's commands. Finally, he walked to the front of the team and dragged the dogs across. In the process, he soaked his boots.
The teams here at midday were not the only ones suffering. A pack of a dozen mushers who had passed through earlier had equally miserable trips.
"It was wet, cold, miserable and nasty," said Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, after showing up in Unalakleet, his sledbag coated in ice.
Gebhardt crossed the creek in the early morning darkness and broke through the thin ice. His sled tipped sideways and pulled him over with it. He spent the next three hours drying out at the cabin, he said.
Rick Swenson also had gone swimming.
"There was no way around it," he said.
The river is surrounded on both sides by thick willows.
Jeff King struggled, too. His team balked at the water and tried to find more solid footing on the snow near the bank. Unfortunately, there was water under the snow, King said.
So he led his team across the overflow, dragging his sled behind in the slushy water.
"It was like dragging the sled through a foot of concrete," he said. "I didn't think I was ever going to get out of it."
King, the defending champion, said little has gone right in this year's race. Overflow was just his latest problem.
"I think I'm doing penance for having such a good time last year," he said.
Noting the bad weather his team had come through, Gebhardt quipped, "All we got left is the blizzard on the coast, then we've seen it all."
But at least for a while Monday, the mushers parked at Old Woman Cabin tried to make the best of their situation. They joked about other mushers and told trail stories.
Garnie flossed and brushed his teeth.
"I'm getting spruced up for my big night in Unalakleet," he said.
He told Sonny King, a veterinarian from South Carolina, to be worried because this was his terrain.
"This is my country now," Garnie, an Eskimo from Teller, said. "Don't talk so loud, I'm trying to sleep." King's drawling response: "Who died and made him sheriff?"
Nearby, Mackey, who has run the Iditarod 18 times, was lying on a wooden cot and telling stories, like about the time he got hypothermic and started searching for a castle he remembered from Disney movies.
Former Iditarod racer Lavon Barve found him parked at the top of a hill outside the village of Takotna, Mackey said. How's it going, Barve asked.
"I think we missed the trail to the castle," Mackey told him. That story had Garnie rolling.
Mackey also was living up to his reputation for being full of tricks. Back in Kaltag, the village that's the last checkpoint on the Yukon River, he had left a steaming cooler full of dog food by the stove so the other mushers - including Garnie and Knott - would think he was still there. While they slept, he snuck out and got his team.
"I didn't even hook up their tug lines," he said. "I just led them a little ways down the trail into some willows and then hooked them up and left."
He was still snickering about it when he arrived at the cabin here.
"I got out of there and they were all still snoring," he said. "God, I love to do that."
Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at email@example.com