Update -- Martin Buser reached Shageluk at 10:19 p.m. Thursday, stayed for 21 minutes and was on his way to Anvik by 10:40 p.m.
ANVIK -- Dozens of lumpy supply bags arranged in alphabetical order, from Cindy Abbott to Aliy Zirkle, sat on the banks of the Yukon River Thursday night. A 10-foot wall of hay bales stood above the Iditarod trail and villagers strolled the checkpoint. All were awaiting mushers.
There was only one replacement dog sled in sight, said race marshal Warren Palfrey.
It's small, black and sleek, with skull and crossbones decorating the crossbar, and it belongs to defending champion Dallas Seavey.
If the heavy sled Seavey drove down the steep Dalzell Gorge and the bumpy Farewell Burn is a tank, his river sled, made from Easton hockey sticks, is a sports coupe.
"He's got a smaller cooler on there, for a smaller team, potentially. Which generally happens in the last half to (one-quarter) of the race," said Palfrey, a four-time Iditarod finisher.
"Maybe he can take that back portion off pretty easily ... That definitely would be a good finishing sled where you could run behind your sled and maneuver," he said.
Seavey last year became the youngest musher to win the Iditarod by conserving his team until he hit the river, then striking like a coiled snake in the second-half of the race.
Race volunteers and Iditarod analysts inspected the sled in 30-degree temperatures as they waited for a musher to arrive. Waist-deep snow line the roads here, yet the trees are bare. Too windy, too warm for snow to collect in the branches.
The trail from the Iditarod checkpoint to Anvik was soft and chest-deep in places, Palfrey said.
"If there's a crust, (the) first few teams could fly," he said.
"The obvious talk of the race has been Martin's strategy in the first 24 hours of the race," Palfrey said. "And that's either going to be hailed as brilliance or people are going to say, 'Oh, don't pull a Buser.' "
"It seems to be working out for him so far. It's going to be one of those things that change the race yet again, when nobody really thought you could do anything different," he said.
And the race is on
The real Iditarod started Thursday at the old Iditarod.
With a steady stream of mushers reaching the ghost town of Iditarod that marks the halfway point of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Aliy Zirkle led a small contingent of contenders out of that checkpoint Thursday night.
Ahead of them was cagey Martin Buser and the Yukon River.
Buser, the four-time champion from Big Lake, owned a lead of four hours, an advantage he gained when he opened the race with a bold, 20-hour run to Rohn.
"Now we gotta see who has the staying power," Buser told KNOM radio before leaving Iditarod. "The middle game is happening, and we're slowly but surely setting up for the end game."
Buser left Iditarod at 2 p.m. Thursday. Zirkle, the Two River musher who was last year's runnerup, gave chase at 5:20 p.m.
By 6:30 p.m., Aaron Burmeister of Nome, Mitch Seavey of Sterling and Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake were also on the trail to Shageluk.
Shageluk is about 50 miles from Iditarod and about 30 miles from Anvik. Though it's not on the Yukon, it's one of the places mushers can stop for the mandatory eight-hour break they must take along the river.
Though Anvik is a big draw -- whoever gets there first is fed a seven-course gourmet meal -- these guys are racing for victory, not vittles. And so Buser may opt to take his eight-hour layover in Shageluk and leave the feast for someone else.
"The sooner you get it out of way, the better," he said.
Plenty of hungry mushers are pursuing him.
Zirkle finished second last year and has been a top contender for a decade but has never won. Burmeister has posted career-bests in his last two races, including fourth place last year, and would dearly love to win the race that ends in his hometown.
Seavey is the father of defending champion Dallas Seavey but hasn't won himself since 2004. And Berkowitz, who is still driving a full team of 16 dogs, is a 26-year-old who was in contention last year before he cut his hand and was removed from the race by officials.
Some 400 miles into the 1,000-mile race to Nome, there appears to be 10 or 15 mushers who could wind up as champion.
As Buser, Zirkle and the others mushed to Shageluk, four-time champions Lance Mackey and Jeff King and longtime racer Sonny Lindner were poised to leave Iditarod late Thursday upon completion of their 24-hour layovers.
Also in Iditarod was a small army of contenders, some familiar, some not. Among those establishing himself as a contender was Girdwood's Nicolas Petit, who clocked the fastest time on the 80-mile run from Ophir to Iditarod. He made the run in 10 hours, 12 minutes. The second fastest time was Burmeister's 11:42
Trail reports are varied
Arnold Hamilton is a 63-year-old life-long resident of Shageluk who has helped the race by setting snowmachine trails out to Iditarod since the 1970s.
"Back then we didn't even know where Iditarod was," he said.
When a crew of trailbreakers passed through Shageluk on Wednesday night on its way to Anvik, Hamilton got a brief trail report.
"A lot of snow, but the trail is in," he said. "We've probably had four feet total all winter. We sent two snowmachines out yesterday and they met up with the trailbreakers. They came back and said (mushers are) gonna have a good fast trail."
Putting in a trail from Shageluk to Iditarod, a stretch used in odd-number years when musher follow the race's southern route, is always challenging, Hamilton said.
"Nobody goes out there except every two years," he said. "But once (mushers) hit the trail here, it's well driven all the way to Nome."
Martin Buser received a much different trail report Thursday from a checkpoint volunteer in Iditarod. He told Buser to expect "poor trail conditions."
The trailbreakers needed almost the entire day to travel the 55 miles from Iditarod to Shageluk. "Our trail breakers had a hell of a time," the volunteer told Buser on Iditarod Insider. "They could hardly get up (the hills), there was so much snow. They think it's going to be real slippery and glazed."
"We would take slippery," said Buser, who would prefer running his dogs on that than on punchy, sugary snow.
The volunteer said deep snow kept Iditarod Invitational bike riders captive in the checkpoint until Iditarod trailbreakers came through. Despite efforts made by trailbreakers, the bikers reportedly post-holed their way to Shageluk.
Rumors of trail conditions forced Lance Mackey to change his race strategy. His original plan was to do two big runs -- Takotna to Iditarod (100 miles) and Iditarod to Anvik (80 miles). He wanted to leave Iditarod by 4 a.m. Thursday so he could reach Anvik in time for a delicious first-to-the-Yukon dinner and do his mandatory 24-hour layover thre.
"The trail report from here to Shag didn't sound all that impressive," Mackey told Iditarod Insider. "I've got a young team and I don't think it wouldn't been in their best. For my team, it was best to stay here."
What's for dinner?
Inside the Anvik city hall, a makeshift checkpoint where bingo markers have been shunted to the corner, Millennium Hotel chef Robert Sidro shuffled turkey and ham sandwiches to veterinarians and volunteers.
An Iditarod tradition returned to the race this year, as the hotel planned to greet the first musher to the river with a gourmet meal, plus $3,500 cash. Here's the menu:
Portobello mushrooms stuffed with red king crab
Smoked sockeye salmon cucumbers with gourmet cheese
Alaska clam chowder
Duck salad with mixed greens
Bone-in 20-ounce ribeye steak
Fresh fruit tart
With one of his dogs lost on the trail between Rohn and Nikolai, Jamaican musher Newton Marshall scratched on Thursday.
The dog, a female named Mae, belongs to Chugiak musher Jim Lanier. Marshall is running a puppy team out of Kathleen Fredricks kennel, plus two of Laniers dogs, according to Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon.
Mushers are not allowed to check into a checkpoint if they dont have all of the dogs they left the previous checkpoint with. And so Marshalls race ended when he arrived in Nikolai without Mae.
Marshall finished 47th in 2010 to become the first Caribbean musher to finish the Iditarod. He is among those looking for the dog, McLarnon said.More Iditarod coverage
By KYLE HOPKINS, BETH BRAGG and KEVIN KLOTT
Anchorage Daily News