Through the cold, vast, uninhabited wilderness that lies between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, Montana musher Doug Swingley drove his 13 dogs toward the halfway camp of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday night, leading a pack of top mushers on roughly the same schedule that's given him the championship twice before.
Call it Swingley time.
The defending champ arrived at the Ophir checkpoint - 443 miles into the race - at 10:07 a.m., loaded up dog food and launched on the 60-mile trail to the Cripple halfway point 12 minutes later.
If he maintains his pace, the 46-year-old musher was expected to reach the Cripple camp sometime Wednesday evening.
While Swingley made his move, five-time champ Rich Swenson and 1983 champion Rick Mackey followed him out of Ophir later in the day. Most of other top mushers appeared to be settling in for their mandatory 24-hour layover. Three-time champ Martin Buser and popular contender DeeDee Jonrowe were both reported in Ophir.
Another 11 mushers were reportedly resting in Takotna, while three-time winner Jeff King and trapper Charlie Boulding had chosen to remain in McGrath.
With the top teams taking their layovers at checkpoints scattered over at least 100 miles of trail - and different starting times to make up for the race's staggered start - sorting out which team was truly leading was difficult.
Boulding, for instance, who started the race in 81st position, could be on the trail for Takotna by 1:06 a.m. today - and pass many of the apparent leaders before they end their layover.
But whether he or the others could overtake Swingley won't be known until tonight.
It doesn't look as though anybody would know the race leader until everyone completes their 24-hour layovers and starts the drive west down the Yukon River, race manager Jack Niggemyer said in McGrath.
In any case, Swingley appeared to be locked on the same winning plan that he's used twice before with record-breaking success.
Last year, when Swingley was first to halfway, first to the Yukon River - and first under the burled arch in Nome - his performance was almost identical.
He arrived in Ophir at 10:28 a.m. with 14 dogs, loaded dog food and supplies, then left 10 minutes later for the 90-mile run to Iditarod.
Swingley's 1995 win, which set the race record of nine days, two hours and 42 minutes, also deployed similar clockwork timing. He zoomed to halfway, seizing a lead that carried him to his first championship on his fourth race.
Could he pull it off for the third time?
A fit, lean-looking Swingley told mushers and fans repeatedly that his dog team was the best of his career, and he felt unbeatable.
One reality check might be the 18-mile leg between McGrath and Takotna, a stretch where mushers rarely stop, giving race watchers insight into the speed of various dog teams.
Swingley made the run in 1:59 - faster than any other musher so far.
* Daily News reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story