Just after noon today, the church bell rang in Anvik to welcome musher Lance Mackey to an eight-course lunch.
The two-time defending champ in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- who broke away from the competition at the ghost town of Iditarod -- collected the meal plus a $3,500 prize from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel for being first to the Yukon River.
A chef and assistant flown out from the Anchorage hotel were on hand to help make the Fairbanks musher comfortable while, 25 miles back down the trail in the rugged village of Shageluk, his chasers were tending their dogs and wondering what it takes to compete with the cancer survivor who is putting his mark on this race the way another Lance -- that one named Armstrong -- put his mark on the Tour de France.
Since the 2009 running of the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome dropped down out of the Alaska Range a couple days ago, Mackey has been behind a string of 16 dogs that have been consistently among the fastest on the trail.
That continued to be the case through the night Thursday and into today with but one small glitch.
A satellite tracking device attached to Mackey's sled, identical to that attached to all the sleds in the Iditarod this year, indicated he got lost for a time on the short, 25-mile section of trail between Shageluk and Anvik. A satellite eye-in-the-sky showed him going first one way, then another and then turning around.
The nearly 4-1/2 hours he spent going 25 miles confirmed there must have been sort of a problem. The jump over from Shageluk to Anvik usually takes good teams only about 2-1/2 hours.
Whether the chasers behind Mackey can take advantage remains to be seen.
Former race leaders Aaron Burmeister from Nenana and Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, were sitting back in Shageluk away from almost everyone this afternoon as Mackey dug into braised pork belly, crab and duck breast at Anvik.
All the mushers are required to take an eight-hour break at either Shageluk or one of the next three checkpoints on the Yukon River. It appeared Schnuelle and Burmeister might have decided to make that stop at Shageluk, but there was no way of knowing for sure.
The two were joined in the village by 2004 Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling and four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park. Seavey has been quietly but steadily moving up in the field as the race moves north.
All of the front-running teams at this point appear to be pretty evenly matched. After taking rests of anywhere from four to six hours, the dogs of Mackey, Schnuelle, Burmeister, Seavey and King all trotted over the 65 miles of trail to Shageluk at average speeds in the 8 to 8.5 mph range.
The performance is especially noteworthy in the case of Schnuelle's team, giving that all of his dogs did the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks only two weeks ago. Most of Schnuelle's Iditarod dogs were in the team with which he won that race for the first time, but five others came from the team driven by his handler in the race.
In an interview at Takotna, Schnuelle said he doesn't think he has a team as fast as Mackey's, but he said his dogs are strong and steady. At this point in the Iditarod, that can prove more important than foot speed, because the big gains to be made in positioning usually come by cutting out a scheduled rest stop.
That move is always risky, however, and probably won't come until the Bering Sea coast given reports of slow, soft trail going up the Yukon River. Then again, there were reports of slow, soft trail for the 150 miles across the nothingness between the abandoned gold mining camp of Ophir and Shageluk, too.
Good travel times indicated the trail packed in by snowmobiles only a day or so before the teams arrived set up firm enough in the cold to provide a good surface on which the dogs could travel. Whether it would hold up as more and more teams churned their way west, or go soft and sugary, remained to be seen.
Daily News reporter Mike Campbell contributed to this report.Map: Iditarod trail and checkpoints
Live standings: Musher leaderboard
The Village blog: About the stethoscope in Mike Williams' sled
Voices from the trail: Audio and video
Photos: Iditarod 37
By CRAIG MEDRED