ANVIK -- The barking of a village dog signaled Martin Buser's arrival long before his headlamp appeared in the early morning blackness Friday.
"Holy moly!" Buser shouted, skidding to a stop outside the log cabin checkpoint. "It's like a Rendezvous team here!"
That's Rendezvous as in the Fur Rondy sprint races held each year in Anchorage the week before the 1,000-mile Iditarod marathon begins, and the comparison fits.
Buser, 54, turned the first half of the Iditarod into a four-and-a-half-day dash.
His eye-popping 20-hour run to start the race has rivals hoping Buser's team will emerge from the Yukon River deflated and out of gas for the final days of the race. But hours ahead of his nearest chaser, Buser said Friday that the gambit has already worked.
The race's end-game is approaching. All the top mushers have taken their mandatory 24-hour rest, and Buser believes his team is no more sapped than the rest of the front-runners.
"Now we're in neutral territory. Now it's just dog care," he said.
In addition to a one-day rest somewhere on the trail, mushers must take an eight-hour break somewhere on the Yukon River. While other top contenders surged through the Anvik checkpoint, opting to rest later in Grayling, Buser's break briefly overlapped with fellow four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey.
Mackey has been known to pull surprise stunts too, skipping rest or slipping out of checkpoints undetected. What did he think of Buser's big move?
"No comment," he said at first. "I couldn't help but scratch my head a little bit like everybody else. We'll see if it pans out for him.
Then, a compliment.
"So far it looks like he's done the right thing. The guy's been around a long time, he knows what he's doing," Mackey said.
'KIND OF A GOOFY GUY'
The first musher to leave Willow and the leader for much of the race, Buser arrived in Anvik at 2:17 a.m. Friday. He was about halfway to Nome.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the Swiss-born musher who is remembered by some longtime village residents because, they say, he temporarily lived in the riverside town in the mid-80s while training to run dogs with Iditarod veteran Ken Chase.
He hasn't changed much, said Dan Sawyer, a lifelong Anvik resident and trapper who lives in a log home just uphill of the race trail. "Same as now. A kind of a goofy guy," he said.
Today, Anvik is home to about 80 people who travel the snowy hills on snowmachines while pickups hauled by barge here in the 1970s sit buried beneath two feet of snow. A few residents gathered along with reporters and groggy race volunteers to watch Buser's red-eye arrival.
This is something of a checkpoint ritual for high-profile Iditarod mushers: Onlookers silently surround the sled as the musher steps heavily, deliberately between the dogs.
In his trademark off-white parka, Buser resembled a dusty snowman as he kneeled to wrap the leg of a husky named Rachel. Sore bicep, he said. The Allman Brothers' "Pony Boy" leaked from tinny speakers somewhere deep in his sled:
"Band is jumping and so am I, I'm just groovin', can't stop movin'. ..."
The dogs looked great, race officials said. But Buser isn't celebrating yet.
He started fast in 2011, but faded late in that race. This year's gambit to run roughly 20 hours straight to Rohn before taking his mandatory one-day rest would have torpedoed many teams.
"I've gone blasting out many times before and fizzled. I might still do it," he said.
Buser believes the unconventional schedule allowed him to hit the reset button on his team's energy, allowing him to leave Rohn, about 170 miles into the Iditarod, with a team as fresh as when the race started.
More pressing is an illness his dogs picked up in the Iditarod checkpoint, where Buser said he made the rookie mistake of allowing the huskies to drink groundwater rather than melting snow for them.
"It took me 35 miles to figure out what was wrong with the dogs, and then I kicked myself for 35 further miles for doing it," he told his wife Kathy Chapoton, who met him in Anvik as part of a snowmachine expedition.
"I think you are definitely going faster than we are," Chapoton told Buser as the pair shared a gourmet meal of roast duck salad and rib-eye steak awarded to the first musher to reach the Yukon. A gold pan piled with $3,500 in dollar bills, another award, sat beside the plates.
PACK GIVES CHASE
About five hours later, as Buser slept, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle arrived in the dark, snatched supplies from a bag and stepped back onto the runners. Aaron Burmeister of Nome did the same at 8:40 a.m.
Buser told reporters that the warm weather on this year's trail may benefit his team, which trains in Big Lake, about 90 minutes outside of Anchorage. "The Banana Belt," he calls it.
"This is a really fast trail right now. Warm and fast. Hard. Suits my team perfectly," he said.
Burmeister, who arrived in Anvik wearing a raincoat, said his dogs are handling the heat just fine. "Anything above zero is too warm. (But) they're moving right through it."
Temperatures in Anvik climbed above 30 degrees as Buser prepared to leave the village, watching the clock and sipping from a Styrofoam cup. Mackey kneeled in the snow nearby, wearing a rubber "Cancer Sucks" bracelet and pulling pink and red booties from his young team.
Mackey couldn't resist teasing him about his fancy 3 a.m. dinner. "Hey, did you at least leave a dirty plate to lick or something? I'm really hungry."
The small talk finished, Buser returned to his corner, sorting supplies. He seemed to realize that Mackey had only just arrived. "That puts him almost eight hours behind me," he said to a friend.
Mackey fussed with his own sled a few yards away, thinking out loud.
"If he's fixing to leave, I'm closer than I thought," he said.
By KYLE HOPKINS