Mackey jumps into the lead

Craig Medred

As winter snows wilted in the near-40 degree temperature of the Innoko River country on Thursday afternoon, the dog team of Jeff King -- four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- eased into the Cripple checkpoint to move into a commanding position in what is shaping up as one of the more topsy-turvy races in years.

But evening brought another flip-flop, when defending champion Lance Mackey moved his 15 dogs through the checkpoint in 10 minutes to reclaim the lead in this 1,100-mile marathon.

That late development followed disaster for one musher and a surprise reward for another.

When King and some of the other race leaders stopped in the quiet village of Takotna to take their mandatory 24-hour rests on Wednesday, Paul Gebhardt, the Iditarod runner-up last year, led a second pack of contenders on through Ophir toward a halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets.

Gebhardt, who was pacing that bunch, planned to collect the loot and then push on another 110 miles to Ruby on the Yukon River before finally pulling over for his mandatory 24-hour rest.

Brain-fogged by lack of sleep early Thursday morning, Gebhardt decided he'd somehow missed the checkpoint, stopped his team and turned them back toward Ophir.

It might have been an easy mistake to make. The fancy GPS satellite system the Iditarod is using to monitor some front-runners showed a bunch of them camped out Thursday at a Cripple checkpoint about 17 miles beyond where the Cripple checkpoint is marked on the map.

There is no Cripple at Cripple. The Cripple checkpoint is a collection of tents plopped down about halfway on the 1,100-mile journey to Nome.

As Gebhardt was going back in search of this moveable checkpoint, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow was charging ahead. Much to her surprise, she ended up reaching Cripple first.

Iditarod Air Force pilot Bruce Moroney, who was in Cripple at the time she arrived, reported this scene from the checkpoint:

"Jonrowe figured teams would be in Cripple by 6:30 in the morning Thursday. She comes rolling in and everyone is expecting Paul Gebhardt.

" 'Where the hell did she come from?' one checker asked. 'Congratulations DeeDee, you're the first to Cripple,' said another checker.

" 'What?' she asked. " 'Where's Paul?' "

He arrived eight minutes later. Jonrowe said she'd passed someone heading back toward Ophir, but thought it was a different musher.

"DeeDee had no idea she was the first to Cripple,'' Moroney said. "It was really cute."

And good for $3,000.

How that will play out over the next several days remains to be seen.

"It's been a pretty rough race,'' said Norwegian Sigrid Ekran, a top-10 contender. "I was going to go to Cripple for my 24, but came here (to Takotna) because it's been slow. But it's been slow for everybody.''

The first teams into Cripple -- Jonrowe, Gebhardt, Zack Steer and a handful of others -- averaged less than 5 mph in warm weather on a trail of softening snow.

King, who left Ophir Thursday morning with a fresh team after an overnight freeze helped to harden the trail, did better on the 60-mile run, but his speed of a little over 6 mph was still well off the 7 and 8 mph speeds sometimes seen on this leg of the trail.

Norwegian Kjetil Backen, who's also completed his 24-hour rest, arrived at 8:35 after a 13 hour, 37-minute slog over 60 miles.

Sixty-five-year-old Louis Nelson Sr. from Kotzebue summed things up as well as anyone.

"The weather's too damn warm,'' he said. "All the things I have in my sled I haven't even put on.''

At Takotna on Thursday morning, musher Allen Moore from Two Rivers observed there might be as many as 20 teams with a shot at victory. His wife, former Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle, is one of them.

"Aliy's right up there,'' he said. "This year she's trying to run a little more conservative. In year's past, she would get up front and stay up front. That didn't work out too good. But this year she's been more conservative. She's going to start pushing later on. She's gambling.''

But then so is everyone else.