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Village with storied mushing past rolls out red carpet for the Iditarod

HUSLIA -- With Iditarod coming to town, this tiny village did its best to make itself seem at least three times as big.

About 300 people live in the Koyukon Athabascan village, but for those lined up along the street leading to the Huslia dog yard and cheering in race leader Aaron Burmeister -- the first Iditarod racer ever to arrive in the mushing mecca of Huslia -- it felt a whole lot bigger.

"This is like winning the Iditarod," Burmeister said of the enthusiastic crowd as he bedded down his dogs, surrounded by the hundreds of villagers that came out to watch him be first into the checkpoint.

Burmeister didn't just collect the official GCI Dorothy Page halfway award and the $3,000 worth of gold nuggets that come with it. He collected an unexpected surprise when the community offered up its own award for the first musher-- a pair of beaded beaver mitts, a beaded cross and a marten hat.

Burmeister, who collected the halfway award in Cripple last year, was humbled by the support.

"I can't put into words how special this was," he said. "What a treat to have everyone out for me."

Community members felt the same.

"It's feels like Christmas," said Mabel Vent, daughter of Iditarod racer Bobby Vent, the runner-up to winner Dick Wilmarth in 1973, the first Iditarod. "It was like Santa was coming."

Officials moved the race trail this year for only the second time in history after warm weather and low snow on the traditional trail forced organizers north to Fairbanks. In 2003, the last time the race moved, the Iditarod ventured down the Yukon River, following some of the traditional villages along the race's southern route. But this year, in an effort to break up long stretches of river running, organizers moved the race north, giving competitors a look at new terrain and allowing them to visit the village known for its storied mushing past.

It was a move that left the Huslia community anxious for mushers to arrive. Vent woke up at 8 a.m. in anticipation of the first musher, who didn't actually show up until closer to 10 p.m. But it appeared to be no problem for her and the other volunteers working to prepare the checkpoint. Bales of straw wrapped in blue plastic were lined up in rows with boxes of Heet stacked neatly on top. Inside the community tribal hall, half a dozen different soups, pastas and pastries were laid out and offered to all who walked in. Student-made posters recognizing the community's mushing greats -- Jimmy Huntington, Warner Vent and George Attla -- lined the walls.

Warner Vent, who still lives in the village, said everyone was excited about the race coming to town and was doing their part to prepare, whether that was neatly organizing drop bags or making sure hot water was ready for mushers.

All of it -- including the carnival-like excitement of the town -- provided Warner Vent with some nostalgia as he waited for the first musher to come in. Vent mushed in the race's early days, placing second twice in 1974 and 1976. He last raced in 1977, when he was third.

"I kind of miss it," he said. "I wish I was racing again."

Even members of the late George Attla's family made it to town to see the race. Attla's sisters, Madeline Williams and Rose Ambrose, waited in the tribal hall for the first mushers to arrive, having made the trip from their home in the village of Hughes earlier in the day.

Williams said Attla would have been pleased at the way the community stepped up to make Iditarod happen.

"It brings me happiness," Williams said. 'We're so sad and it's exciting for this stuff to happen."

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