Berkowitz steals lead from Burmeister in Takotna

Kevin Klott

Wednesday, 2 a.m. update -- Martin Buser left Nikolai with a full team of 16 dogs early Wednesday morning, the Iditarod leader on paper, if not on the trail. Buser, coming off his 24-hour layover in Rohn, reached Nikolai at 1:15 a.m. He left at 1:22 a.m.

Aaron Burmeister was the first musher to reach Nikolai, at 8:11 a.m. Tuesday. The important consideration: Buser had already completed his 24-hour layover by the time he reached Nikolai; Burmeister and other frontrunners had not. Based on Nikolai arrival times and factoring in the layovers, Buser is about seven hours ahead on paper.

Jake Berkowitz, the leader on the trail, reached Ophir at 1:14 a.m. Wednesday. He has yet to take his 24-hour layover.

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. 

This isn’t the first time Burmeister has been first to Takotna, a village about 300 miles into the race. He got there first in 2009, when he wound up placing seventh for his first top-10 Iditarod finish.

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 runnerup, 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.

Lurking much farther behind was four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake, who could very well be the race leader by the time Wednesday morning dawns.

Buser’s unexpected and unprecedented all-out sprint to Rohn has been the story so far in the 41st annual Iditarod, and it’s the reason why there is nothing safe about Burmeister’s lead. 

Running with limited rest, Buser reached Rohn, 177 miles into the race, more than nine hours ahead of anyone else Monday. He took his 24-hour break there, and while he was resting, Burmeister and the rest of the pack rolled through.

Buser returned to the trail shortly after noon Tuesday, his 24-hour break behind him. 

Burmeister and the other frontrunners still have to complete their day-long layovers. When they do, Buser — barring disasters like dog problems, a storm or equipment failure — should zoom past while their races are on pause. 

And that should put Buser back in the lead, possibly by hours.

About two-thirds of the field made it past the Burn and into Nikolai on Tuesday. The  ride across the Burn is a rolling, often bouncy trip through an area named for a forest fire that left it windblown and unprotected by trees. 

In low snow years, mushers sometimes limp into Nikolai with busted sleds or carrying dogs in their baskets. But it was a more recent burn, just outside of Rohn, that troubled some mushers this year.

“Lots of ice, lots of dirt,” said Two Rivers racer Jessica Hendricks.

Burmeister, 36, turned into the race rabbit early Tuesday morning, leading a giant pack of drivers across the Burn and beyond.

A veteran of 13 Iditarods, Burmeister owns top-10 finishes in his last two races, in 2012 and 2009. He expects to win this year.

“It’s a really nice team,” he 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.”

In McGrath, Burmeister claimed the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award, which includes a spirit mask made by Bristol Bay artist Orville Lind and $500 in travel or freight from PenAir.

Burmeister indicated he might not be able to take people by surprise like he did last year, when he placed a career-best fourth. Victory will require a gamble — a major move somewhere along the trail, he said.

Among those he will need to beat is Mackey, who is having a better race than perhaps even he expected — although there’s more than 600 miles of trail after Takotna.

Mackey, 42, and a motley crew of pups are putting up some of the fastest run times among the leaders. They did the 80-mile run from Rohn to Nikolai in 8 hours, 34 minutes — that’s 54 minutes faster than Burmeister, nearly five hours faster than Zirkle and 4:20 faster than Mitch Seavey.

On the 50-mile run from Nikolai to McGrath, Mackey clocked 5:23. He was 18 minutes faster than Seavey and 41 minutes faster than Burmeister and Zirkle, who clocked 6:04.

Before the ceremonial start Saturday in Anchorage, Mackey, who scratched halfway through last month’s Yukon Quest with sick dogs, 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.”