RAINY PASS LODGE — Sunny and clear skies greeted Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers here Monday and left most who stopped stripping off parkas, hats, snowsuits and gloves.
"What's the temp?" asked Hugh Neff of Tok as his team pulled on their harnesses and a volunteer wrote down his arrival time: 11:26 a.m. A veterinarian said it was about 20 degrees. Neff stuffed hay into a small red sack, picked up his drop bags and blew through the checkpoint — continuing down the snow-covered Puntilla Lake and pushing on until he was the first musher to the next checkpoint at Rohn by late afternoon.
Michael Williams Jr. of Akiak pulled in and took a break, parking his sled dogs alongside already-stopped teams. Williams wore jeans and a sweatshirt as he lit a fire in a large metal pot to heat up frozen meat for his dogs. He said it didn't seem warmer than normal on the 140 miles of trail here from the Willow start, though he left the previous checkpoint at Finger Lake early to avoid traveling in the sun.
As soon as Wade Marrs lined up his team of dogs in front of a bale of hay and box of heating fluid, he said, "It is hot out" before cutting a hole in the nearby Puntilla Lake ice. He hauled back water for his sled dog team, dumping it and electrolyte powder into plastic bowls.
"These guys are definitely hot," said Marrs, who was wearing fleece pants and a light jacket.
Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King said he occasionally laid on his sled's brake to keep his team at a steady speed on the trail so the dogs wouldn't get too warm. He also said the trails were slick, though he said the steps down the often-treacherous Happy River Gorge were the best he had ever seen. Unlike 2014, they had snow this year.
"The first 24 hours have been perfect," King said.
Warm weather didn't bother spectators at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Planes flew into and out of the area all day, landing and taking off from the nearby lake. Clay Perrins, wearing ski goggles as sunglasses, grilled hot dogs and "moose dogs" outside. Perrins' family owns the 5 acres of property next to where mushers parked their teams. Inside the main lodge, Perrins' mother, Denise, said she started planning the menu for their 60 or so guests about two weeks ago, flying in groceries from Anchorage.
"I'm half-stressed, half-excited," she said Sunday evening, preparing for the mushers to get in Monday.
On Monday, snowmachines zipped around the property, carrying guests between the main lodge, the cabins and the dog lot where mushers who stayed parked their teams. After taking care of their dogs, some mushers went into their designated cabin, comparable to a summer camp bunkhouse, to rest, while a couple mushers napped on their sleds. Small crowds of people walked around the parked dog teams, taking photographs and asking for booties to take home.
Louise Bezyk and her fiance Chris Burton flew to Alaska from England for the Iditarod. Bezyk said she read about the plane trip to the Rainy Pass checkpoint online and booked it as a birthday present for Burton. She talked to her friends back home about the trip, who had plans to spend their vacations in warm-weather cities.
"They all looked at me a bit strange," she said. Bezyk wore a red baseball cap that said "Team Kim Franklin," for the British musher. She said they wished they had more time at the checkpoint.
"It's beautiful," she said.