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Day 2: Buser leads Iditarod pack across snowless Farewell Burn

This story has been updated. See the most recent updates here.

UPDATE 6:30 a.m. Tuesday:

Nearly 70 miles of driving over gravel, rocks and frozen tussocks came to a welcoming end early this morning for Iditarod leader Martin Buser.

The four-time winner of this 1,000-mile sled dog race said good riddance to the snowless Farewell Burn when he pulled into the tiny village of Nikolai on the northern side of the Alaska Range at 1:09 a.m. with all 16 of his dogs.

He completed the 70-mile run from Rohn to Nikolai in a grueling 11 hours and 24 minutes. By comparison in good snow years like last year, Aaron Burmeister, who was the first into Nikolai, posted a run time of 9 hours, 28 minutes.

Despite the terrain, which Buser described as "the most difficult [I've] ever seen," it's no surprise the Big Lake musher is keeping it all together.

"He's got a tough sled and he's a good driver," said Rohn Buser, Martin's son, who is sitting out this year's race.

Rohn's old man is so good that the 55-year-old, who hasn't won the Iditarod since 2002, has comfortably positioned himself ahead of the pack with possibly the worst trail conditions behind him.

Nearly five hours after parking in Nikolai, Buser made room for Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit, who checked in at 5:36 a.m. Petit, running his fourth Iditarod and trying to improve on last year's impressive sixth-place finish, completed the Rohn-to-Nikolai run 44 minutes faster than Buser.

Chasing Buser and Petit are a string of veteran dog drivers that includes Hugh Neff, Aliy Zirkle, Aaron Burmeister, Jeff King, Michael Williams Jr. and Sonny Lindner.

On Saturday in Anchorage, King tried to think back to the most recent Iditarod when the Farewell Burn was snowless.

"I know there was a year when the burn was worse than it is now," he said. "It was one of the year's that (Lance) Mackey won. The tussocks were so bad. It was the bowling ball sized tussocks on the trail."

King was likely referring to the 2007 race when Mackey, in search of his first Iditarod championship, famously lost one of his runners in the Dalzell Gorge and still maneuvered his sled across the snowless Burn.

As King recalled, it was one of the first years the Iditarod trail crew pulled a groomer behind one of its snowmachines. King said it did more harm than good.

"Some of those tussocks were cut off like a guillotine," the Denali Park musher said. "You may not see it in the photos, but those bowling balls are gone now. They've been beaten away and pounded down. They're just not there.

King, a four-time Iditarod winner, compared what humans have done to the Iditarod Trail to what the bison have done to the Buffalo Tunnels, a troublesome stretch of trail that begins after mushers leave Rohn.

"We have now walked and beaten (the Iditarod Trail) down so much that the bumps are mostly gone," King said.

ORIGINAL STORY:

BUSER LEADS IDITAROD PACK ACROSS BARREN FAREWELL BURN

Somewhere, Joe Redington Sr. is smiling.

A pair of Big Lake mushers, Martin Buser and Kelly Maixner, pushed the pace in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, with Maixner following Buser's gameplan from last year and opening with one long run that took him over the Alaska Range and into the Rohn checkpoint shortly before noon Monday.

Then he rested.

And while he did, Buser blew right past him.

Buser, a four-time champion who says he has one of his best-ever dog teams, took the Iditarod lead early Monday afternoon, checking in and out of Rohn in a swift three minutes and leaving Maixner behind.

The move made Buser the first musher on the snow-barren Farewell Burn, where Buser's parka provided a rare white spot on miles and miles and miles of dirt.

Earlier in the day Ray Redington Jr., sitting on his sled on Puntilla Lake, said he thought it was exciting that Buser and others had jumped out to a big early lead.

"I think they're trying to win," he said. "It's neat to see something new. I can't blame them for trying. You've got really good dog drivers trying it. I mean, really good dog drivers."

Redington thinks his grandfather, the late Joe Redington Sr., co-founder of the Iditarod, would appreciate Buser's and Maixner's gambits.

"I can't believe they're trying it, but it's fun to watch," Redington said. "I think of my grandpa, and he'd be beside himself to see the way they're running. He'd enjoy watching it."

Good chance Joe Sr. would be astonished by what awaits dogs and mushers on the Farewell Burn. Other than some frozen puddles, there are few signs that it's winter in this part of Alaska's Interior. The ground is brown.

"Bare ground isn't all that bad," Buser said Saturday at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, where much of the prerace talk was about challenging trail conditions. "It's the uneven ground that's hard for the runners, the constant bending, that break runners. I predict there will be some broken sleds this year."

Buser said he's prepared for the worst. He has backup sleds waiting for him in Unalakleet and McGrath, and he claims the sled he drove over the Alaska Range and into the Burn is "virtually unbreakable."

Buser, who opened last year's race with an unprecedented run from Willow to Rohn duplicated this year by Maixner, had the Burn to himself for a couple of hours Monday.

He left Rohn at 1:45 p.m. Aliy Zirkle, the two-time runnerup from Two Rivers, was the second musher to leave, departing at 5:25 p.m.

Zirkle, the 2000 Yukon Quest champion, led a parade of former Quest champs out of the checkpoint -- Sonny Lindner, Hugh Neff and Jeff King.

Remaining in Rohn was Maixner, who rested a total of 35 minutes at checkpoints prior to Rohn, which is about 200 miles into the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

The first two days of the race -- the clock started ticking Sunday afternoon in Willow -- served up some unusual troubles for a pair of Norwegians who are among the pre-race favorites.

Robert Sorlie, the two-time champion back for the first time since 2007, was fined $100 for littering by Iditarod officials -- he lost the small trailer he was towing while negotiating the Happy River Steps.

Joar Ulsom had to backtrack early Monday when, in the dark of morning, he went straight across Finger Lake instead of following the marked trail around the lake. Race officials told Ulsom to go back and return on the shoreline trail.

They could have issued Ulsom a 30-minute penalty, race judge Warren Palfrey said, but the backtracking made that unnecessary.

Ulsom said the extra lap around the lake took him about seven minutes.

"I took the wrong chute in," he said. "Seven minutes. Not too bad at all."

Jason Mackey lost one of his main lead dogs to a leg injury between Skwentna and Finger Lake after she stepped in a deep hole made by a moose sometime when the snow was deep and soft, but has since frozen.

"We were running, and when she stepped in it, she stayed there," said Mackey, who said he wrapped the leg but had decided to drop the dog.

Along with challenging trail, mushers are contending with challenging weather in the form of unseasonably warm temperatures.

"The weather is just amazingly warmer that it should be," said Charlie Bejna, a rookie from Illinois. "It's like us when we're running and it's 100 degrees out. You just have to watch and keep them hydrated."

The weather, the trail and the early-race gambits by Buser and Maixner all made for an interesting first full day of racing Monday.

Can those bold frontrunners keep up the fast pace?

"For them guys, I hope they do," Redington said. "For me, I hope they don't."

Then Redington turned to former champ Joe Runyan, who is covering the race for iditarod.com. "Are they in Nome yet?"

By BETH BRAGG, KEVIN KLOTT and CASEY GROVE

Anchorage Daily News

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