John Baker arrived in Kaltag at 1:19 p.m. and leads the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pack off the Yukon River. A 90-mile portage from Kaltag to the Alaska Native village of Unalakleet separates him from the Bering Sea coast.
Baker trains dogs in Kotzebue, further north and above the Arctic Circle. While others find the coast weather and sea ice intimidating, Baker and team are one run away from their zone of familiarity.
But Ramey Smyth from Wasilla, the giant who just woke up, has suddenly appeared out of the mundane Iditarod pack, and is now Baker's primary rival. On the run from Eagle Island to Kaltag, Smyth's big string of 14 dogs was demonstrating speed and strength.
Observers watching the GPS tracker provided by Iditarod Insider saw that he passed contenders Hugh Neff from Tok and Canadians Sebastian Schnuelle and Hans Gatt on the 75-mile leg from Eagle Island to Kaltag. My expert contacts tell me that Smyth presently has the fastest team on the trail. He is approximately two hours in arrears of Baker.
For the true Iditarod fanatic, the race has now reached an interesting crux. With the finish conceptually in view, Baker owns a two hour advantage that he can leverage. Even if some teams exhibit faster traveling speed, Baker can comfortably travel the Bering Sea coast in 10 to 12 hour segments with about 18 hours rest. It is not impossible to catch him, of course, but that two hour lead has made a chase difficult.
A crux, from a mountaineer's point of view, is that one difficult point of the climb that has to be conquered. Accomplish the crux, and the rest of the climb will come easily. That is the position for Baker. The crux in Baker's climb to an Iditarod championship is the run from Kaltag to Unalakleet.
He will be resting for two hours or so by the time Smyth arrives in Kaltag. Knowing that Smyth needs to rest his team, Baker will calculate the time necessary to recharge. He won't leave a minute on the table so as not to give Smyth any advantage. My panel of experts agrees that this rest will be four to five hours. He will leave while Smyth is resting and with his sights set on Unalakleet.
Smyth and the following pack -- Neff, Gatt and Schnuelle -- will agonize over a dilemma: How long should they rest their dogs versus much time should they give Baker as he methodically trots to the ocean with his coastal pack of hounds?
These mushers want to give their dogs plenty of rest, but at the same time, the reality of the finish is flashing in their brains. The object of the race is to arrive at the finish first. Team speed is only one dimension of a successful race.
In a similar predicament last year, Gatt may recall his second-place finish. Mackey made a giant move on the Yukon River and took the lead. Gatt posted faster traveling times to the finish, but could never close the gap.
Joe Runyan, champion of the 1985 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and 1989 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, worked with former Iditarod champion Jeff King on his book, "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" as well as with defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey on his autobiography, "The Lance Mackey Story", and is providing commentary and analysis of Iditarod 39 for Alaska Dispatch.