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Tanana welcomes Buser and Iditarod

TANANA -- Puffs of warm breath formed little clouds in the frigid air embraced by the dozens of people who turned out in this historic musher community on Tuesday to greet the arrival of Martin Buser, the leader in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Cold-weather scenes have been somewhat rare in Alaska in this strange winter of warmth, but the season seems to have set itself right just in time for the running of the 49th state's No. 1 sporting event.

After a rainy start to Iditarod in Anchorage on Saturday followed by a long drive north to the relocated restart in Fairbanks, the Iditarod is rolling into what fans have come to expect -- cold weather and hot dogs.

Buser's dogs are, so far, the hottest. They blazed the way from Manley Hot Springs into this riverside community of 250 at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers.

As was the case last year, Buser set a fast early pace, and his dogs looked to have speed to burn. They averaged almost 11 mph on the roughly 65-mile run along a mainly overland trail between the two communities. The trail was moved off the Tanana River because of lingering concerns about open water due to the unusually warm Alaska winter.

Behind Buser, a four-time champ, none of the chasers could come close to matching his speed. Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, the Iditarod runne-rup for three years running, came closest, but she was almost 1-mph slower. Hugh Neff from Tok, who came in immediately behind Buser, averaged more than 2 mph slower on the run.

A 57-year-old mushing celebrity from Big Lake, Buser last year had a team that showed great speed early, but it faltered along the Bering Sea coast and struggled a bit to hang onto a sixth-place finish. Some believe the team paid a price for going out a little too fast.

On his website prior to the race this year, Buser suggested he was going to try a modified strategy in 2015.

"Race plan,'' his blog said, "be patient, stay happy and steady, not flashy, first in NOME."

Whether that comes to pass won't be known for about a week. All Buser has to show for his efforts so far is the award for First to Tanana, given him by the people here along with a $500 check and a beaded, handmade wall hanging to recognize his visit to an Interior village rich in mushing history but far off the normal Iditarod track.

"I'm not going to take that money,'' Buser told a small crowd gathered outside the log cabin serving as the Iditarod checkpoint in the village "I'm going to keep my beading. I love the local Athabascan beading, and I would like to donate that (money) to the dog mushers' club.''

Situated at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, Tanana is about 120 miles east of Ruby, where the northern route of the Iditarod Trail normally hits the Yukon River. Tanana is being used as an Iditarod checkpoint this year because a lack of snow north of the Alaska Range made for such a bad trail, Iditarod officials decided it best to move the race off the historic route and start north of the range in Fairbanks.

This has happened only once before in the Iditarod's previous 42 years.

The Interior doesn't have a lot of snow this year either, but a lot of the route west across the state is on river ice which nicely holds what little snow there is to be found.

Mushers voiced few complaints about the trail in here, and it looks good downriver to Ruby.

The first teams to head that way weren't expected to leave until well after the sun dropped beneath the horizon to the west and the night-time cold started to settle into the Yukon Valley.

The National Weather Service was forecasting lows pushing to 30 below, but thankfully there was almost no wind and no appreciable wind in the forecast.

The half dozen teams that arrived in the checkpoint behind Buser at about 3 p.m. got a chance to rest in the sun through much of the afternoon. Among those later arrivals was recent Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Brent Sass from Eureka.

A reality TV star when he isn't running dogs, Sass wasn't long in this checkpoint before he was notified that he was being disqualified for using a two-way communication device.