Update, 2 p.m., Monday, March 3: Cindy Gallea of Wykoff, Minn., became the first musher to scratch from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, pulling out early Monday afternoon in Skwentna. Iditarod officials said Gallea, who had 15 dogs in her team, was ill. Gallea, 62, is a nurse practictioner who's been running sled dogs a quarter century. She's finished 10 of the 12 Iditarods she's started and has finished as high as 33rd. Her husband Jim Gallea has also finished three Iditarods.
Update, 10:15 a.m., Monday, March 3: Martin Buser is still proving to be a master trail strategist, though whether it will pay off remains to be seen.
Buser is took a four-hour break at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, a surprise move after blasting through the checkpoint in 2013. Still, his pace isn't far off from last year. The Big Lake musher got in at 5:42 am, just minutes later than last year, when he arrived at 5:38 am.
He said he's operating on a "new and improved plan." Buser was cagey on what his next move would be, but don't expect another 24-hour layover in Rohn. Last year he ran straight through before stopping in Rohn. He held a massive lead heading into the Yukon River, but warm, sloppy trail and sick dogs stripped him of the lead.
Buser and Mike Williams, Jr. both joked about how poor training conditions this season had set them up well. Both said the trail was hard and fast. Williams said he spent most of the 140 miles to Puntilla Lake standing on his drag brake, trying to slow his team which averaged 8.57 mph on the trail between Rainy Pass and Finger Lake.
That's faster than he expected, he said. After a season training on glare ice on the rivers and trails of his hometown of Akiak, his team is cruising on the hard and fast trail.
That doesn't mean it hasn't been without challenges. Two-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle missed the bridge crossing over the Happy River and fell in up to her mid-thigh. Williams had to dodge a tree coming out of the Finger Lake checkpoint.
But musher Hugh Neff was amazed at the quality of the trail. As he pulled into the checkpoint early Monday morning he noted the impressive "power of paranoia" leading into the race.
"I've seen it way worse than this," he said.
Update, 8:10 a.m., Monday, March 3: While Martin Buser rested at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, Kelly Maixner, of Big Lake, zipped through, stopping for just eight minutes before hitting the trail again to take the lead. Nicolas Petit and Michael Williams Jr., who had stayed close to each other and Maixner also reached Rainy Pass, but stayed put longer. Meanwhile Aliy Zirkle and Hugh Neff, separated by about two miles approached Rainy Pass from Finger Lake, according to their GPS trackers.
Buser, who was first into Rainy Pass, reached the checkpoint at 5:42 a.m., a checkpoint he'd reached at 5:38 a.m. last year, suggesting that trail conditions haven't proved as big a factor as initially feared, at least not yet. The Iditarod's trail crew "spent about four hours earlier this week taking chainsaws out to a glaciated creek out on Round Mountain about 4 miles before the Rainy Pass checkpoint," reports Alaska Dispatch's Suzanna Caldwell from the trail. "The crew carved out about 2 or 3 feet of ice and put plywood fencing around it to create some sort of trail. They've also built bridges across one part of the Happy River and several in the Dalzell Gorge using plywood covered with snow (usually they're made with alder branches). Some of them collapsed in the gorge with the melting temperatures, so the they just cut down big logs instead."
Update: 7 a.m., Monday, March 3: Martin Buser reached the Rainy Pass checkpoint, at 5:42 a.m. Monday morning, with a pack of three -- led by Nicolas Petit, and including Kelly Maixner and Michael Williams Jr. -- were clustered together within a mile of each other at about mile 124 according to the race's GPS trackers. Meanwhile, Aliy Zirkle, runner up in the past two Iditarods, sped through the Finger Lake checkpoint and was moving alone in pursuit of the lead group. Hugh Neff and Jeff King had also departed the Finger Lake checkpoint.
Update: 5 a.m., Monday, March 3: Four teams, headed by leader Martin Buser, raced into and out of the Finger Lake checkpoint in the early morning hours Monday. Buser, of Big Lake, departed the Finger Lake checkpoint at 2:19 a.m., half an hour before the next musher, Kelly Maixner, also of Big Lake. Maixner, in turn, had a 40-minute edge over Girdwood's Nicolas Petit, who was followed out of Finger Lake 10 minutes later by Michael Williams Jr., of Akiak. Tok's Hugh Neff, Norwegian Robert Sorlie and Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof had all reached the Finger Lake checkpoint, but not departed. Buser's pace had dropped a bit, but at a brisk 7.8 mph, he was still moving more quickly than other mushers early this morning.
Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of musher Kelly Maixner. It has been updated to correct that misspelling.