Imagine standing on a sled behind a team of 16 dogs, traveling mile after desolate mile in the Alaska wilderness without any sign of other human life. All of a sudden, lights shine off in the distance, the first village to come into view in a very long time.
Whether it's a single cabin or a booming village of several hundred people, for mushers on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the villages are not only checkpoints to eat, rest and recharge, but a chance to interact with someone other than their dogs.
"There are no checkpoints that I dislike," said defending champion Dallas Seavey. "Every time you come around the corner and see the lights of a checkpoint approaching, it's a great sight."
There are 26 checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, and for Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, the reception that teams receive are truly Alaskan: Villagers welcome the dogs first.
"And it's an open-armed greeting, where they want to make sure all the dogs are OK, and they get straw for them and food for them," said Zirkle, running her 13th Iditarod. "Then they say, 'How are you doing, Aliy?' "
There are two ghost towns that serve as checkpoints, including the former mining village of Iditarod, which once boasted a population of 10,000 people. The ghost towns fill up with support staff during the race, but are empty the rest of the year.
Veterinarians staff the checkpoints to examine the dogs, and race officials make sure the mushers are fit to continue.
Mushers are required to take three mandatory rest periods during the race. They take a 24-hour layover any time during the race, an eight-hour break at any checkpoint along the Yukon River and an eight-hour rest at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.
The village of Takotna is a popular place for mushers to take their 24-hour stop. It comes 329 miles into the race, at a time when the dogs are ready for a break and mushers need a good meal. The town of about 50 people on the Takotna River is renowned for filling the school gym with homemade pies, moose stew, moose chili, steaks and made-to-order breakfasts for grateful mushers.
Seavey likes to take his 24-hour layover at Takotna, where the town's volunteers provide mushers hot food and other luxuries, like "a microwave with a hot wet towel to take care of a quick -- well, I wouldn't call it a shower, but wipe your face off and get some of the grime off your hands and face."
But some mushers find Takotna a little too crowded.
"It doesn't matter if you're first or 50th, it seems like the whole damn race is in Takotna at the same time," four-time champion Lance Mackey said.
Overcrowding leads some mushers to continue 23 miles to the next checkpoint at Ophir -- another ghost town where they and their dogs can recharge for the next grueling stretch of racing.
By MARK THIESSEN and RACHEL D'ORO