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Photos: Iditarod mushers arrive at Puntilla Lake

A plane on Puntilla Lake awaits the arrival of mushers from the Iditarod Trail. Mar. 2, 2014.
Loren Holmes photo
Stars streak across the sky above Rainy Pass in this 30 minute exposure. Mar 2, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Food drops stand waiting for mushers to arrive at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser's Iditarod team resting at Puntilla Lake. He was first into the checkpoint again this year, but unlike last year he chose to rest his dogs four hours before continuing on. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser's Iditarod team resting at Puntilla Lake. He was first into the checkpoint again this year, but unlike last year he chose to rest his dogs four hours before continuing on. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Michael Williams, Jr heats some food for himself at Puntilla Lake before sunrise. He and Martin Buser were first into the checkpoint this year. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
A dog in Michael Williams Jr's team resting at Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Michael Williams, Jr was second into Puntilla Lake in this year's Iditarod. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle arriving at dawn into Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle arriving at dawn into Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle and Martin Buser talk about the trail conditions at Puntilla Lake. Zirkle fell into the Happy River but her dogs pulled her out. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser taking a four-hour break at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser taking a four-hour break at Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser and Michael Williams Jr at Puntilla Lake. The two were first into the mountain checkpoint. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Hugh Neff arriving in Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Hugh Neff manning Brent Sass's Wild and Free team, arriving in Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Veterinarian George Stroberg checking Hugh Neff's dogs at Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Hugh Neff in Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle bedding her dogs at Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
One of Aliy Zirkle's dogs from SP Kennel at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Martin Buser feeding his dogs under the morning sun at Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
The Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake. Mar 3, 2014
Loren Holmes photo

Martin Buser is still proving to be a master trail strategist, though whether it will pay off remains to be seen.

Buser 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. 

See all of our slideshows from the trail and more on our Iditarod page. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, for more great images from The Last Great Race. Contact Alaska Dispatch photojournalist Loren Holmes at loren(at)alaskadispatch.com.