ANVIK -- Only a day ago, when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race reached its halfway point in the ghost-town of Iditarod, four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake looked to be in command of the action.
What a difference one day and 90 miles of bad trail can make. Buser slowed significantly on the 65 miles to the tiny village of Shageluk, and then slowed some more on the short, 25 mile jump over to Anvik on the Yukon River. Buser was the fifth musher in there, having been passed by Hugh Neff from Tok, John Baker from Kotzebue on the run to Shageluk, and Ray Redington Jr. from Wasilla on the way from Shageluk to Anvik.
As Mackey tended his dogs in the warm sunshine here with village residents milling about and kids chasing mushers in pursuit of autographs, he recalled passing Buser just two miles shy of Shageluk.
"The funny part was he was sound asleep," Mackey said. "I could tell he was sleeping becasue of the bobble-head effect his headlight was having."
Where the younger four-time champ caught the older four-time champ, the trail was narrow, and Mackey said he had some trouble getting past. He eventually had to walk his dogs around. He said Buser helped by pushing the sled.
"We're all friends," Mackey said. "I told him to have a good run."
And then Mackey took off. Redington said he didn't know what to think after he passed Buser.
"I don't know," the 35-year-old musher said of the former champ 17 years his senior. "Maybe he's conserving energy."
A heir to the great Redington name -- his grandfather Joe Sr. started this race -- and a veteran of 10 Iditarods, Ray is running in what is for him a new position. He was fourth behind Neff, Baker and Mackey as the race rolled north up the Yukon River Friday night. Ray's best ever finish is 11th, and that only last year.
"I've always been a conservative musher," he said. "I just wanted to see what it was like to (run hard). I want to win this."
Despite that, he seemed pretty laid back here as he chopped frozen fish with an ax, tossed chunks to his dogs, and joked with fellow Susitna Valley musher Ramey Smyth, whose team was parked nearby. "I thought that was the dropped dog pile," he said to Smyth as he walked past the other musher's sled.
A consistent top 10 finisher in the Iditarod, Smyth might drive a scruffy looking outfit, but they have shown they can perform. He was among a big group in the hunt Friday night as the race moved north.
Buser, meanwhile, was hanging with the lead pack, but what had been at times a 10 or 13 mph team was down to a little over 6.5 mph on the grind to Grayling. The swiftest teams appeared to belong to Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and Baker. Both are Iditarod veterans. Gatt, unlike most of the lead pack, broke through Anvik and pushed on to Grayling before taking the eight-hour mandatory rest somewhere on the Yukon River. Most of the lead teams took that stop in Anvik.
Gatt was due to leave Grayling just after 7 p.m. Friday. By then, Neff, Baker, Mackey, Buser and Sonny Lindner from Two Rivers, a flash from the past, were already on the trail in front of him.
An old sidekick of five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, the now 61-year-old Lindner was the Iditarod runner up way back in 1981.