Despite setbacks from Mother Nature, mushing season in Alaska is gearing up, starting with a big win from a familiar name.
Four-time Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion Lance Mackey won the inaugural Top of the World 350 Sunday, crossing the Tok finish line at 4:17 p.m.
Mackey was almost 45 minutes ahead of runner-up, Whitehorse musher Gerry Willomitzer and third-place finisher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake.
The race was run in honor of Isaac Juneby, the former chief of Eagle Village, who died in Anchorage this summer.
Race organizer Hugh Neff -- the 2012 Yukon Quest champion -- ran with the mushers from Tok to Eagle Village and back. The race was unusual for its "fun-run" format, in which racers mushed into Eagle non-competitively, switching to race mode for the return trip.
Neff told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that he "definitely" expects the race to continue next year.
Neff, who mushed the course as an official, told the News-Miner that Mackey looked good crossing the finish line.
"He's looking like the old Lance we remember well," Neff told the News-Miner. "It gets me motivated to get down to business because the Quest has a lot of good drivers this year."
Mackey dominated long-distance mushing in Alaska from 2005 to 2010, racking up four consecutive Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race wins from 2005 to 2008, and an unprecedented four consecutive Iditarod wins from 2007 to 2010. But the last few years have proved disappointing for the Fairbanks musher, who said his core team of champion sled dogs were burned out after dozens of 1,000-mile races. He hasn't cracked the Iditarod top-10 since his 2010 win, although he did notch a third-place showing in the 2012 Yukon Quest.
Surprisingly, the Top of the World 350 turned out to be the first major mid-distance race of the mushing season after the Sheep Mountain 150 -- typically the season opener -- was cancelled due to lack of snow.
The next scheduled race, the Knik 200, which is scheduled to start Saturday on the Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to Yentna Station and back, may be in trouble. According to a Facebook post, the race course is rapidly deteriorating due to warm weather in Southcentral Alaska, and a determination will be made in the next few days on whether to race or not.
Despite trail woes in the Mat-Su valley, the Copper Basin 300, is still on and slowly gaining more entrants. In November, race organizers cancelled the 2013 event after a tumultuous year for the race, which included cancellation of the 2012 race midway through and the disintegration of the race's volunteer staff.
However, the community of Glennallen, the start and finish of the 300 mile race, pulled together and brought the race back to life, with a start date of Jan. 12. Registration for the race has been slow. As of Monday, only 15 mushers had signed up, including Allen Moore, a past Copper Basin champion and the 2012 Yukon Quest runner up.