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Harsh winds batter mushers as Mackey draws closer to Nome

Mike Campbell
Dallas Seavey and his team drive over the hill country between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King leads the way for his team, one of which got tripped up in the lines, as he leaves the Shaktoolik checkpoint on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King leads the way for his team, one of which got tripped up in the lines, as he leaves the Shaktoolik checkpoint in strong wind on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King, foreground, and John Baker depart the Shaktoolik checkpoint of the Iditarod on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King mixes feed at the Shaktoolik checkpoint shortly before he left there on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Hugh Neff rests inside the Unalkleet checkpoint after being the third Iditarod musher to arrive on Monday, March 16, 2009.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
After filling up with coffee, John Baker heads out of the checkpoint room in Shaktoolik preparing to head out of the coastal town on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
John Baker heads out of Shaktoolik on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.

Battling brutal arctic winds as much as his challengers, two-time champion Lance Mackey pulled into Elim well before dawn on Tuesday, anxious to end the battering that 37th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has inflicted.

Mackey took seven hours, 26 minutes to make the run of nearly 50 miles past Bald Head and Castle Rock along the Norton Sound coast.

He was alone.

Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse and John Baker of Kotzebue - the second and third-place racers - headed into the wind at 5:48 and 5:59 a.m. respectively.

"In weather like this, anything can happen," Mackey said Monday evening as he prepared to leave Koyuk. "It's crazy out there."

Crazy and potentially deadly.

At the back of the Iditarod pack, two dogs had perished and at least two rookies scratched after wrestling bitter cold between Iditarod and Shageluk.

Both dogs were in the team of Lou Packer from Wasilla, who was airlifted with his surviving animals from the trail between Iditarod and Shageluk and reportedly flown to Unalakleet.

Rookies Kim Darst of New Jersey and Blake Matray of Two Rivers scratched Monday night. Darst had 13 dogs in her team and Matray had 14 dogs remaining when they decided it was best for their teams to withdraw, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee.

Trail sweeps were expected to escort the two teams to Shageluk at first light this morning.

Erin Matray, Blake's wife of two years, said by phone Monday night that she had not heard from her husband since he called from McGrath a couple of days ago.

"He said there had been a lot of highs and lows and that he'd been on a little bit of a physical and emotional roller coaster," said Matray, 28.

The Two Rivers musher ran the Iditarod in 2003 but had to scratch when his dogs become sick.

"I'm not worried about him," she said. "He's got good gear and since we live up here, he's used to the cold. I know the dogs are fine; they're mostly Siberian."

Mackey was resting in Elim, about 125 miles from Nome, after arriving at 4:20 a.m. Ahead are the checkpoints of Golovin (30 miles away) and White Mountain (another 20 miles). Once racers are there, they must rest eight hours before staring the final 75-mile run to the finish line in Nome.

A third consecutive victory for Mackey would further cement his name among the all-time greats of his sport.

Only fellow Iditarod Hall of Famers Susan Butcher and Doug Swingley have captured three consecutive Iditarods and only five mushers in the history of the race have more than three victories -- Swingley, Butcher, Martin Buser of Big Lake, Jeff King of Denali Park and the all-time champ Rick Swenson of Two Rivers.

On Monday, King, who finished second to Mackey last year, was asked if he can catch him.

"We're having a hell of a time keeping up with him never mind catching him," he said.

But, King added, "I am not congratulating him, yet."

Wind was the mushers' biggest concern. That's because dog teams do not like heading straight into a strong wind, never mind winds up to 40 mph that were driving wind chills to minus-40 and creating a ground blizzard.

Schnuelle said after arriving in Koyuk that a 5-year-old dog in his team called Finn saved the day. Two of his other lead dogs, when faced with the bitter wind, sat down and wouldn't go forward.

When Schnuelle put Finn in single lead at the head of the team, he got the job done.

"He was the only dog willing to go straight into that wind," said Schnuelle, who described the conditions as "Tough, tough, tough."

"If I had known it was as windy as it is, I never even would have tried to push it," he said. "Once I hit the ice, it was 'Oh my God,' " he said. "My leaders sat down on me."

Even John Baker, a musher from Kotzebue accustomed to arctic cold, said no one has an advantage in such nasty conditions. Cold winds drain the dogs of energy, no matter who is driving the sled, he said.

"I really don't think that you get an advantage that easy over someone like Jeff," Baker said, as he followed King out of the Shaktoolik checkpoint.

Baker has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 13 Iditarods but was 23rd last year. He said he was having a better run this year, despite the weather.

Canadian Hans Gatt, a three-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race -- often run in even colder weather with checkpoints farther apart -- said mushers can't prepare their teams for these conditions.

Mushers don't train in these conditions, Gatt said, as he put new booties on his dogs and prepared to leave Shaktoolik.

"They don't want to go in this stuff," Gatt said. "You just hope for the best."

Leeann Sookiayak, who has lived all her 20 years in Shaktoolik, said the weather was simply Mother Nature doing her thing.

"She gets pretty angry and she blows snow," she said as she waited for musher Aliy Zirkle, to arrive 13th place.

Sookiayak said Zirkle is her favorite musher because every year when the Iditarod comes though she gives her wrist warmers as a present.

Photos: Day 10
Photos: Day 9
Live standings: Musher leaderboard
Video: Mackey leaves Unalakleet in the lead