Burmeister out of Galena, leading Iditarod mushers toward distant Huslia checkpoint

After resting in Galena just 19 minutes, Aaron Burmeister headed north on the long push toward Huslia early Thursday morning in the lead of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

His 6:26 a.m. departure came just hours after four-time champion Jeff King completed a 50-mile run from Ruby in seven hours, reaching Galena at 4:37 a.m. Thursday in first place.

At that point, King -- who has taken his mandatory eight-hour rest -- was trailed by Aliy Zirkle and Burmeister, who have not. Martin Buser, who also has his eight-hour rest behind him, was running in fourth place. Zirkle of Two Rivers reached Galena at 5:54 a.m.

As Zirkle fed her dogs and packed gear into her sled bag on Wednesday night in Ruby, she talked about how odd it was to be at the village a little over 350 miles in to the race. Normally at this point, racers would be closer to Takotna, the cozy Interior village that has become favored by mushers taking their 24-hour layovers.

"This doesn't feel very far," she said.

Though the relocation of the race's restart to Fairbanks means that competitors have been traveling on the Yukon River since Tanana this year, the Denali Park musher's first-place arrival in Galena means he earns the First Musher to the Yukon award from race sponsor Millennium Alaskan Hotel.

The prize is a gourmet five-course meal that includes Alaska halibut and coconut cream soup, Cajun Kodiak scallops, Caesar salad with salmon caviar, filet mignon stuffed with Bering Sea red king crab and bananas foster flambé (and wine pairings for each course). He also wins a cash prize of $3,500 and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

King also won the award last year, when he was the first musher to reach Ruby on the normal northern route of the Iditarod. This year, the race has been rerouted to a Fairbanks start for only the second time in race history and a handful of Interior Alaska villages are experiencing the Iditarod for the first time.

Also gone this year are the steep challenges that normally come during the first 350 miles of trails. Still, there can be problems.

Racers noted the trail from about midway between Ruby and Tanana had gone soft and punchy making for slightly slower travel here. Wade Marrs said his dogs did well dealing with it, but that a pair of inexperienced leaders kept trying to find new, better trail, only to encounter slower, deeper powder.

"They kept trying to move over to the bank," Marrs said, far from the groomed trail that ran closer to the middle of the river for most of the way. "I kept thinking 'uhh, it's probably pretty deep (snow) over there, guys.'"

Temperatures for mushers appeared to have warmed slightly in Ruby, as northern lights streaked the clear skies and temperatures hovering around a comparatively balmy minus-16 degrees. Norwegian rookie Thomas Waerner praised what he called "not freezing temperatures" and stripped down to a thick woolen sweater as he cared for his dogs. But veteran racer Jessie Royer stayed bundled up, wearing a thick puffy coat and frosty neckwarmers that covered most of her face.

Royer, who trains in Montana, said early the season there provided plenty of snow to train on, which helped her dogs heading in to Ruby Wednesday. But Montana also dealt with extremely warm temps from time to time. Her last sled dog race, Montana's Race for the Sky, was saw temps reach the 50s. Vet checks before the race were conducted in 65-degree weather.

"I'm not exactly acclimated," she joked.

Earlier, musher Zoya DeNure of Delta Junction became the first musher to scratch from this year's Iditarod, pulling out in Tanana. She dropped two dogs when she first came into that checkpoint, leaving her with 14. This was DeNure's fifth Iditarod and the fourth time she's scratched.

Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass was the first musher out of the race when he was disqualified for using a device capable of two-way communications.