Out in the snowy desolation of the Innoko River country, two-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey made his move Thursday to grab control of The Last Great Race.
His 5:20 p.m. arrival in the ghost town of Iditarod not only secured the halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets put up by GCI, it also sent a warning to the mushers behind that the man from Fairbanks has a team with the potential to take over this race.
The 90 miles of trail between the old gold camp of Ophir and Iditarod was supposed to be soft and slow. And yet Mackey's dog team averaged about 9 mph. His running time of 9 hours, 56 minutes would have been fast on good trail.
The last time the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was contested on the southern route in 2007, it took Martin Buser about 10 hours to make the Ophir-Iditarod run on a firmer, supposedly faster trail with little snow.
What exactly was going on with Mackey's team this year was hard to say. Ghost towns have no phones. Getting any sort of communication out of the makeshift, wall-tent checkpoint of Iditarod is always a problem.
But satellite tracking devices placed on the sleds of mushers showed no one behind Mackey on the trail to Iditarod doing anything close to 9 mph. Most of the teams were a couple miles per hour slower.
The difference could be due to that soft trail. It could be due to other mushers holding their teams back to save energy in what is still considered early going in this race. Or it could be Mackey has a team way better than anyone else's.
On the 40-mile jump up and over a mountain from Takotna to Ophir earlier Thursday, Mackey's team averaged 9.49 mph. Nobody else's dogs even came close. The second fastest was the team of Mackey's Fairbanks neighbor, Ken Anderson, which did 8.62 mph. Most of the teams were around 8 mph.
The Takotna to Ophir run is generally a good measure of team speed. The checkpoints are close enough together there is no reason for anyone to stop between, especially when most of the front-running teams making the trip this year were already coming off 24-hour rests in Takotna.
West of Ophir on the trail to Iditarod, the race's Bruce Lee reported flying over Mackey's team as it motored down the trail. He observed the dogs "loping at a pace that was reminiscent of a few days back when he left the starting line in Willow. His team was moving in a cadence that was awesome to watch."
How long they can maintain that might depend on what is ahead. Judging from the satellite tracking devices on the snowmachines of Iditarod trail breakers, things didn't exactly look good. For much of the day Thursday, they were making 3 or 4 mph on their way back to Shageluk -- an indication they were doing more plowing of snow than riding atop it.
"I've heard they've come from Shageluk (to Iditarod) to come help and break that out again,'' four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park said in Takotna early Thursday, and that "they're waiting in Iditarod depending on how we're moving.
"They have yet to put in a trail from Grayling to Eagle Island and Eagle Island to Kaltag (on the Yukon River) for fear of wasting their effort is my guess. So they'll probably try to time that.
"It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out you don't want to be way ahead. My guess is that is something (Mackey) is well aware of."
Or at least it's not an advantage to be way ahead if a musher runs into trail that slows the team. If the trail is good, however, it's an advantage to get as far ahead as possible.
Mackey, the defending champ, and King, last year's runner-up, have been eyeing each other regularly almost since the start of this race.
King looked to be in position to win the Iditarod last year until he fell asleep in a coastal village. Mackey sneaked out during King's snooze and grabbed just enough of a lead to hang on for victory. King was second.
King, who became the oldest musher to win the Iditarod with a victory three years ago at age 50, would probably like to exact some revenge, although he claimed he wasn't paying all that much more attention to Mackey than anyone else in the front.
"I enjoy getting a chance to see (Mackey's) dogs,'' King said. "I've rarely been in sight of his team to see their gait. It's interesting we had similar times into (Takotna). It indicates we're making the same decisions that ultimately end up with the same answer. But I don't think it has anything to do with him keeping an eye on me or vice versa."Map: Iditarod trail and checkpoints
Live standings: Musher leaderboard
Voices from the trail: Audio and video
By CRAIG MEDRED and KEVIN KLOTT
Anchorage Daily News