Update, 4:20 p.m.
A game of Iditarod hopscotch was in full flower on the frigid Yukon River Saturday, as the third different race leader in about 10 hours charged towards Kaltag.
Veteran Aaron Burmeister of Nome headed downriver towards the final Yukon River checkpoint when he pulled out of Nulato at 3:43 p.m. behind 13 dogs.
Saturday morning, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King led the racers into Koyukuk by a couple of hours. But as King rested there, three-time runnerup Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers came and went. She was also first into Nulato, before Burmeister mushed past. Zirkle may be taking her mandatory eight-hour Yukon River rest in Nulato; if so, she cannot leave until just before midnight. Burmeister, on the other hand, must take his rest at the next checkpoint of Kaltag, some 50 miles downriver. That town is the final Yukon River checkpoint.
Update, 2:10 p.m.
Showing a burst of speed, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle checked into Nulato at 1:48 p.m. Saturday, still driving 16 dogs. After running hard from Huslia over the last day, her dogs made a quick 22-mile charge on the Yukon River from Koyukuk at an average speed of 8.7 mph. That short run should be an excellent indicator of team speed at this juncture of the race.
Aaron Burmeister jumped over four-time champion Jeff King at Koyukuk to move into second place, heading for Nulato at 1:10 p.m., just 10 minutes after arriving. Despite some brutally cold evening temperatures, Burmeister and Zirkle have been camping outside of checkpoints for the last few days.
King, who arrived in Koyukuk with a comfortable lead around daybreak Saturday was still resting his 16 dogs there. He was joined in Koyukuk by two-time champion Mitch Seavey, who arrived more than three hours after King.
Among the top four racers, only King has completed his mandatory eight-hour rest at some checkpoint along the Yukon River. Nulato and Kaltag are the final two Yukon River stops.
Update, 12:20 p.m.
Keep on rolling. That seems to be Aliy Zirkle's mantra in this Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The three-time runner-up from Two Rivers rolling through the Koyukuk checkpoint late Saturday morning, barely stopping, to recapture the lead from a resting Jeff King, who arrived more than two hours earlier. So Zirkle, the first musher out of the previous checkpoint of Huslia is also the first out of Koyukuk, 85 miles down the trail.
However, King, the four-time champion, may be in the better position.
• He made the run from Koyukuk more than three hours faster than Zirkle;
• He was resting;
• He has already taken his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River. Zirkle still needs do that, either at the next checkpoint, Nulato, some 20 miles down the trail, or Kaltag, another 50 miles southwest.
After Kaltag, the trail heads off the Yukon River, heading west for Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on the Seward Peninsula.
Two more mushers scratched Saturday morning -- Christine Roalofs of Anchorage in Ruby, and Gerald Sousa of Talkeetna in Galena. This was Sousa's 13th Iditarod.
Update, 9:30 a.m.
As the first rays of sunlight hit Yukon River ice, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park pulled into the Yukon River checkpoint of Koyukuk at 9:05 a.m. Saturday, looking to stretch a gap between him and the other front runners in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Heading into the checkpoint, King had built an 9-mile lead over Aaron Burmeister of Nome and a more significant 27-mile margin over three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers. Zirkle was the first to leave the Huslia checkpoint Friday night, but it appeared she would need to rest on the 85-mile run between the home of the late sprint mushing legend George Attla and Koyukuk. King made the 85-mile run in less than 12 hours, averaging 7.4 mph.
Compounding King's advantage was the fact that he has already completed the mandatory eight-hour rest every musher must take somewhere on the Yukon River; Zirkle, Burmeister and two-time champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling have not.
Among those who have finished their eight-hour rest, defending champion Dallas Seavey of Willow was closest to King, running fourth. But last year Seavey proved he could not be counted out of any sled dog race until the finish line is in sight.
"They were right back up over 9 mph cruising in here," Seavey told Iditarod Insider about his dogs in Huslia. "I've got a lot of big engines, but you want to make sure they don't beat up the frame."
Two other teams that bear watching as the 1,000-mile race moves back onto the mighty Yukon belong to Jessie Royer of Montana and John Baker of Kotzebue.
Royer, now running ninth, laid down a blistering run on the rugged 80-mile trail from Galena to Huslia, averaging 8.4 mph, which was as much as 3 mph faster than other top competitors. Nobody knows who stopped to camp on that stretch and for how long, but Royer's speed over such a haul was impressive.
Similarly, Baker has bounced back from a slow start that saw the 2008 champion lingering below 30th place earlier in the race. He was the 10th musher out of Huslia Saturday morning, chasing King and Zirkle, and he had already completed his eight-hour rest.
Some mushers may find it hard to leave the Huslia checkpoint that has been so welcoming and enthusiastic about the race.
"I'm so excited to be in Huslia; I feel like a rock star," said Jodi Bailey, running 19th Saturday morning.
Update, 11 p.m. Friday
After blowing past the halfway point, a familiar face moved to the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday night.
After most of the mandatory 24-hour and 8-hour rests were sorted out between a dozen mushers stretched out along more than 100 miles of trail, Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers -- the runner-up in the last three Iditarods -- emerged at the point of the spear.
As early leaders finished out their mandatory 24-hour rests in Huslia, or recovered from the 80-mile run from Galena to that Interior Alaska checkpoint, Zirkle blew through the remote community of 275 to steal the Iditarod lead.
Zirkle was behind a full string of 16 dogs. She gave out lots of hugs in the checkpoint and signed some autographs, but otherwise was all business. She paused only long enough to grab some gear out of the drop bags she'd sent to the checkpoint before heading down the trail. All of her dogs were alert and frost covered. None of them even sat down.
In the checkpoint, Jeff King had been putting gear together, packing his sled, and heating up a meal in his cooker when she arrived. As soon as she took off down the trail, he dropped booties along the line next to his dogs in preparation for preparing the dogs to hit the trail. Asked if he was going to chase, he shrugged, saying that first was going to grab a cup of coffee inside.
He did, but didn't sit and sip it.
Meanwhile, Mitch Seavey was getting ready. His dogs laid down while he worked. A few of them even dozing off as he packed his sled with straw and hot water for a rest and a meal down the trail. Then he went inside the checkpoint cabin, grabbed hot water for himself before heading back out to his team to chat with his son Dallas, who is here for his 24-hour rest, and who had walked over to get a better look at his dad's team.
Even with the dozing dogs, it only took Mitch a second to get them up with "get ready" and the dogs were on their feet. Then they were gone.
King finished getting ready a few minutes later and followed Mitch Seavey out onto the trail. He told his dogs "next stop, Unalakleet!" to which Montanan Jessie Royer, who'd parked nearby, said "I heard that!" and King responded, "I was wondering if anybody was listening."
What he meant remains to be seen. A moment later, as he was putting fleece lined dog coats on he told his lead dogs, Zig and Skeeter "Time to unleash the dragon."
And then he too, was gone.
Zirkle and Mitch Seavey have yet to take their mandatory 8-hour layovers, while King has taken both his 8- and 24-hour layovers.
Only a year ago, Zirkle seemed poised to win the Iditarod only to see victory blown away by a storm. The finish line was only about 20 miles away in Nome when she decided to hole up in the Safety Roadhouse to wait for a Bering Sea howler to mellow out.
Behind her, Dallas Seavey, a one-time U.S. Olympic team wrestler who grew up training dogs in sometimes howling wind in the Caribou Hills of the Kenai Peninsula, decided to ignore the storm and punch through to Nome. The decision netted him a second Iditarod victory at the age of 26.
The 44-year-old Zirkle was left to lament what went wrong. But the setback has clearly not dulled the competitive zeal of the the first woman to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the other Alaska 1,000-miler between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, and Fairbanks.
She has played her cards carefully in this Iditarod. She did her mandatory stop -- the Iditarod requires one such 24-hour pause somewhere along the trail and then a mandatory 8-hour break along the Yukon -- in Galena with four-time champ King of Denali Park.
King was the musher who chased Zirkle up the Bering Sea coast last year before getting blown over in a storm. Chasing hard on Zirkle's heels from White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint to Safety, he went quickly in one big gust of wind from the potential thrill of victory to the agony of defeat.
After he was blown off the trail, an Iditarod film crew had to help King and his dogs make it to Safety, where he dropped out of the race.
The Iditarod has now entered the phase where teams often play an intriguing game of leap frog. With Nome still 500 miles away, nobody can yet run flat out for the finish.
So everyone is trying to get into position where when they leap over the leading team in front, they win. Or get into position where if they cut rest in a checkpoint -- an always risky move -- their dog team will be able to go to the front and then hold that position all the way to the finish.
The contenders in this complicated game have clearly narrowed. There are probably 10 of them still in position to have a shot at victory, barring another big Bering Sea storm. A big enough storm can always compress the lead pack and alter the race, but there is no such storm in the forecast this year.
That narrows the contenders to Zirkle; King, who led her into Huslia; Aaron Burmeister from Nome, an experienced top-10 finisher who grabbed the halfway honors in Huslia; defending champ Dallas Seavey; Norwegian rookie Thomas Waerner, driving an all-star team of Scandanavian huskies and schooled in Iditarod tactics by training partner and two-time Iditarod champ Robert Sorlie from Norway; four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake; Royer, who had the fastest run to Huslia; and two-time champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling.
There are a few others still in the hunt as well, but King, the Seaveys, and Buser are the main players. Over the years, they have shown they know how to win, and Zirkle has now come close to victory so many times she can't be dismissed as a serious threat.
Dallas Seavey has age and fitness on his side in this struggle. His father Mitch, King and Buser are all over 55. They have age and cunning on their side.
The 39-year-old Burmeister gets the points for determination. He is hobbling around on only one good leg, having blown out a knee in the 2014 Iditarod. It was rebuilt, but is still back to only about 80 percent.
The 42-year-old Waerner is an unknown. No rookie has won the Iditarod since the 1970s, but Waerner has an excellent European sled-dog pedigree and a bit of history on his side. The last time the Iditarod moved north from Willow because of a lack of snow and ran an Interior Alaska course similar to that being used this year, Sorlie won the race.
Granted, Sorlie was no rookie. The race of 2003 was his second Iditarod. But until his victory, no foreigner had come close to winning The Last Great Race. And yet he did.
Waerner could stir things up even more were he to become the first foreign rookie to win.