UPDATE 11 p.m. TUESDAY
Aaron Burmeister surged to the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, but just when it looked like he might retire for the night as the race leader, Jake Berkowitz stole the lead away from him.
Burmeister, a Nome musher hungry for his first victory in the 1,000-mile race that ends in his hometown, held the lead throughout Tuesday, leading the way into checkpoints at Nikolai, McGrath and Takotna.
He planned to take his mandatory 24-hour layover in Takotna, according to the Iditarod Insider, and he'd been there for nearly two hours when Berkowitz blew through.
Burmeister and his team of 15 dogs reached Takotna at 8:48 p.m. -- six hours ahead of his 2009 pace. Joining him within an hour were three of the best. Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, last year's runner-up, trailed him by 47 minutes; four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks was 48 minutes back and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling was 57 minutes back.
Berkowitz, a 26-year-old from Big Lake driving a full team of 16 dogs, arrived at 10:40 p.m. and was gone by 10:42 p.m.
UPDATE 7 p.m. TUESDAY
Aaron Burmeister was the first musher to reach McGrath on Tuesday evening, spending enough time to reap the reward for leading the way into the Kuskokwim River village.
Driving a team of 15 dogs, Burmeister arrived at 6:29 p.m. and left at 6:32.
He paused long enough for a brief ceremony presenting him with the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award. He prizes include a spirit mask made by Bristol Bay artist Orville Lind and a $500 credit for PenAir travel and freight shipment.
UPDATE 3 p.m. TUESDAY
The heat of the day didn't cost Aaron Burmeister his top spot Tuesday afternoon as he packed up his sled bag and headed out of Nikolai toward McGrath.
The Nome musher dropped a dog and checked out at 12:25 p.m. with 15 dogs in harness. Forty-eight minutes later, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers also said so long to the 24 other mushers stationed on the banks of the of South Fork Kuskokwim River. She left a dog there, too, and is now traveling with 14 -- not a bad number to have after traveling a little more than 240 miles since Saturday's start.
"For the first 300 miles I'll run my own team," Zirkle told APRN. "I really don't look around all that much for the first 300 miles cause I've gotta see what I've got."
Former Iditarod champions Mitch Seavey and Lance Mackey left the checkpoint 10 minutes apart. Seavey departed at 1:52 and Mackey at 2:02. Both were headed to McGrath with 15 dogs. Among those first four teams that left, Mackey's gained the most rest there with 5 hours and 10 minutes of down time.
Mushers to keep an eye on farther back along the trail will be Martin Buser and Matt Failor, who are both fresh off their mandatory 24-hour layovers. In the near future, they could very well find out if their strategy -- run hard to Rohn and take an early 24 so they can pass leaders taking 24s further up the trail -- is going to work.
Temperatures in the Upper Kuskokwim Valley are hovering in the mid 20s. It's not ideal, but also not impossible, for driving sled dogs. The forecast for tonight calls for a chance of snow with temperatures in the mid to upper teens.
UPDATE 11 a.m. TUESDAY
The 41st running of the Last Great Race is beginning to take some shape this morning as Aaron Burmeister sits No. 1 among the top five who have settled into the village of Nikolai.
"It's a really nice team," Burmeister said of his dogs Monday in Finger Lake. "They got more experience than they had coming into it last year. They're now veterans, and they're looking really good."
Burmeister, 36, indicated he might not be able to take other teams by surprise like he did in 2012, when he placed a career-best fourth. This year, however, he expects to win. To do it, the Nome musher would have to make a gamble -- a major move somewhere along the trail, he said.
Thirty minutes after Burmeister signed the clipboard at Nikolai -- 241 miles into the roughly 1,000-mile trail -- Lance Mackey caught up to his longtime friend. The Fairbanks musher and four-time champion arrived with 15 dogs and posted what turned out to be the fastest Rohn-to-Nikolai run time among the current top five.
The 42-year-old and his motley crew of pups finished the 80-mile run in 8 hours, 34 minutes -- that's 54 minutes faster than Burmeister, nearly five hours faster than Aliy Zirkle (third), 5:32 faster than Paul Gebhardt (fourth), and 4:20 faster than Mitch Seavey (fifth).
Mackey indicated he might blow through the next checkpoint 48 miles away in McGrath and do his mandatory 24-hour layover farther up the trail, perhaps in Takotna, where the home-cooked food is considered delicious.
"I love the people of McGrath, but it's not my choice for 24 (hour) spots," he told Iditarod Insider. "We'll see."
Before the ceremonial start Saturday, Mackey, who scratched halfway through the Yukon Quest last month, joked about the makeup of his dog team.
"I've got two dogs that have never seen the start of any race, let alone the Iditarod," he said. "If I can get them off the avenue and through the tunnels and actually to my truck at the other end, it'll be a successful day."
UPDATE 8:40 a.m. TUESDAY
New race leader Aaron Burmeister and his train of 16 dogs have completed the long chug across the windblown Farewell Burn and will be using the village of Nikolai as a temporary pit stop.
The 13-year Iditarod veteran, who is so thirsty for that first victory, reached the village of about 100 people around 8:11 a.m. He completed the 80-mile run in 9 hours, 28 minutes. Late Monday night, Burmeister was the 13th musher to leave the previous checkpoint of Rohn, but he jumped ahead to be the first to finish a difficult section of trail that most drivers don't seem to miss once it's behind them.
A trio of mushers with years of Iditarod success under their belts will soon follow Burmeister into town: four-time champion Lance Mackey, 2012 runner-up Aliy Zirkle and seven-time top-10 finisher Paul Gebhardt. On Monday night, Gebhardt was the first to leave Rohn at 7:26.
Back in Rohn, Martin Buser of Big Lake is preparing to come off his mandatory 24-hour layover, which ends at 9:53 a.m. Matt Failor, who is running Buser's B team and also is taking his 24 layover, will be able to leave early this afternoon.
Temperatures in Nikolai registered just above 10 degrees early this morning. They are expected to rise this afternoon into the mid- to upper 20s, which means teams will likely use this mellow stop along the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail to refuel their dog teams, repair parts of their sleds that may have busted over the Burn, and replace sled runners in preparation for the 48-mile run to McGrath.
UPDATE 6:15 AM TUESDAY:
While Monday's trail bosses Martin Buser and Matt Failor remained stationed in Rohn, some familiar faces emerged as new leaders along the Farewell Burn overnight to begin the third day of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
It appears as though Aaron Burmeister has taken the role as the rabbit of a giant pack of drivers that have left Rohn and are headed to Nikolai, a tiny village nestled on the banks of the South Fork Kuskokwim River.
Among those trying to hunt down the 36-year-old from Nome are two smaller groups of racers. One is made of two Fairbanks mushers, Lance Mackey and Aliy Zirkle, as well as Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof. Behind them are two packs of two: Fairbanks' Sonny Lindner and Willow's Justin Savidis, and Sterling's Mitch Seavey and Wasilla's Jason Mackey.
According to the Iditarod's GPS trackers, Burmeister is 8 to 10 miles in front of Mackey, Zirkle and Gebhardt.
Between the checkpoints of Rohn and Nikolai, Burmeister and his followers are facing an 80-mile stretch of flat trail that beelines across nasty tussocks, bare gravel bars and the dead-tree remnants of one of Alaska's biggest wildfires. This terrain is what people sometimes just call "The Burn" -- and some years it is aptly named.
In good years, the Farewell Burn offers up a snowy highway across frozen lakes, through willow patches and alongside the remnants of a forest that burned decades ago. In bad years, it can be 80 miles of slippery ice, dusty gravel and sled-busting stumps.
Race marshal Mark Nordman reported there are stretches of windblown trail outside of Rohn with little or no snow, which isn't anything unusual for that region of Alaska, and glare ice along the lakes.
"Otherwise it's good snow all the way," he said.
As of 6:15 this morning, 35 mushers have left Rohn and are headed to Nikolai, 17 mushers are in Rohn keeping Buser and Failor company while they finish their mandatory 24-hour layover, three are heading up and over Rainy Pass, and the remaining nine are still at the Rainy Pass checkpoint at Puntilla Lake.
HEADED HOME: Anchorage's Scott Janssen on Monday night became the first musher to scratch in the 41st running of the Iditarod. The Mushing Mortician called it quits at the Rainy Pass checkpoint out of concern for his dogs and their performance.
The 51-year-old who owns funeral homes in the Anchorage Bowl was racing in his third Iditarod. Last year he finished 38th and the previous year 42nd.
More Iditarod coverage
By KEVIN KLOTT and BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News