Rested and recharged, a small cavalry of some of the best dog mushers in the world were on their sleds well before dawn Thursday, bearing down on the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park led the charge out of the ghost town of Ophir at 3 a.m. after finishing his mandatory 24-hour layover. King had dropped one dog, leaving him with 15.
Before 5 a.m., Hugh Neff of Tok, Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Sven Haltmann of Willow and Zach Steer of Sheep Mountain had followed King out with fresh teams of at least 14 dogs.
The 60-mile run from Ophir to Cripple -- followed by the even longer run from Cripple to Ruby on the Yukon River -- penetrates some of the most desolate terrain on the Iditarod Trail. Mushers encounter seemingly endless sparse scrub spruce and rolling hills in the once-thriving gold mining country.
Expect the chasers to shoot into the lead of the 38th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by this afternoon.
Sitting atop the leader board for the moment is Dallas Seavey, the highly regarded 23-year-old who finished a spectacular sixth last year.
Seavey may not win the 1,000-mile race to Nome, but he got a little wealthier Thursday morning when he bagged $3,000 in gold nuggets for being first to reach the halfway point of Cripple. Seavey arrived at the abandoned mining camp at 1:26 a.m., winning the GCI Dorothy Page Halfway Award.
He edged Kotzebue's John Baker by just 11 minutes.
By 6 a.m., only Martin Buser, the four-time champion from Big Lake, had joined the tandem in Cripple. Mushing into wind chills of minus 20 or worse, all three struggled to get there, averaging between 3.5 and 5 mph en route. That, of course, includes any time stopped to rest or snack the dog team.
In a low-snow year, the trail from Cripple to Ruby, where temperatures slipped below minus 10 overnight, can be a long, slow grind. But if there's good snow, it can be an enjoyable ride.
Behind the first two groups, another pack of mushers who took their 24-hour rests in Takotna were back on the trail, too. In that group were five-time champion Rick Swenson and former runners-up Paul Gebhardt and DeeDee Jonrowe, joined by Ken Anderson of Fox, Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., and Ryan Redington of Wasilla.
"Every year the question arises: What is the smartest place to take your 24? In the last couple of years, the best move was to take it early, at Takotna or McGrath, because the trail was soft beyond Ophir," wrote former Iditarod racer Jon Little on his race blog. "Ophir to Cripple is the most remote stretch of trail in the race, since it is put in solely for the race by a fleet of about five savvy snowmobilers.
"There's no base. So in deep snow years, it's often best to wait at Takotna, and enjoy their homemade pies, while the trail sets up and hardens in the cold air overnight.
"This year, as race leader Jeff King noted in a video clip, may be different. There's less snow and hard trails. 'This might be a year where, OK, keep going,' he said."
Three-time defending champion Mackey is down to 12 dogs, fewer than he's had midway through his championship races. They remain a powerful team, but if injury or illness takes out another two or three animals, Mackey could be in trouble.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.Photos: Day 5 (McGrath and Takotna)
By MIKE CAMPBELL