NOTE: Nicolas Petit arrived in Unalakleet at 1:40 p.m. Sunday in the Iditarod lead. Read the details, including quotes from the musher and photos of the scene, in our updated story.
SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE:
UNALAKLEET — Nicolas Petit, the Girdwood musher who has dominated middle-distance races this year, is leading the Iditarod to the Bering Sea coast today.
Learn more about Petit here: 'They're the kids': This top Iditarod contender wants a house big enough for 12 dog doors
The musher left Kaltag (mile 652) at 1:43 a.m. with 13 dogs. Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway left 90 minutes later followed two minutes after that by defending winner Mitch Seavey.
9 P.M., SATURDAY UPDATE: Nicolas Petit arrived first into Kaltag (mile 652) at 7:45 p.m. to win $2,000 and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Fish First Award.
Petit traded the lead up the frozen Yukon River today with fellow frontrunners Mitch Seavey, the defending champ, and Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Petit, Seavey and Ulsom near Kaltag as Iditarod front-runners to leave the Yukon
GRAYLING — Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit remained in the Iditarod lead Saturday night en route to Kaltag, where the race leaves the Yukon River and darts for the Bering Sea coast.
With defending champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway on his heels, Petit's lead is anything but certain.
"It is becoming clear that the Yukon will be a major game-changer in the 2018 Iditarod," wrote Daily News analyst and race veteran Jake Berkowitz.
Petit, who finished his mandatory eight-hour river layover in Anvik as first musher to the Yukon, had a lead of nearly four hours when he left Grayling on Friday. Grayling is 122 miles away from Kaltag, which is 652 miles into the 1,000-mile race.
But Petit's lead vanquished when he took a long break outside Grayling, and then he swapped leads with other front-runners overnight.
"Petit rested a solid five hours on the Yukon River and allowed Seavey and Ulsom to catch back up to him and pass him before pulling the hook," Berkowitz wrote. "Seavey's lead was short-lived and Petit quickly got his team back up and moving Saturday, overtaking Ulsom and Seavey and leading the front three into Eagle Island."
Poor flying conditions prompted Iditarod officials to remove Eagle Island (mile 592) as an option for mushers to take their mandatory eight-hour river rest. It was one of the few curveballs in a race that so far has been marked by a lack of mishaps.
Teams are not traveling at record-setting speeds like last year. The trail has not been particularly treacherous. There have been no major injuries. There have been no dog deaths, and only four of the 67 racers have dropped out.
"It's been drama-free out there," said Fairbanks musher Cody Strathe.
Still, after years of low snow on portions of the trail, mushers are adjusting to a different set of challenges.
Right before this year's race, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King attached 4-inch-wide runners to the bottom of his sled, doubling the width of a typical sled runner and making it look like he's traveling on two downhill skis.
King said he expected deep snow on this year's trail, and he wanted to float over it instead of sink into it.
By the village of Grayling, 530 miles into the race, he was happy he had installed the wider-than-average runners.
"Regardless of my 30th position or wherever I am, I'm confident they've been a big help in maintaining energy level," he said.
Many of the mushers giving their dogs a break Saturday in Grayling said they still planned to rest in Eagle Island, even though it's not an official checkpoint.
They said they would just carry more dog food and a bale of straw from Grayling, as if they were planning to camp along the trail.
"I'll just rest there as I had planned," said Akiak musher Mike Williams Jr.
Nenana musher Jessie Holmes said he also would cut the 122-mile run between Grayling and Kaltag in half by stopping at Eagle Island.
"So I just need one meal and three snacks per run," he said.
"And, I mean, I'll throw a little extra in there to be conservative in case something happens — extra Heet, a whole bale of straw. It's kind of a lot of stuff with this slow trail."
But, he said, the fact the Iditarod volunteer veterinarians would still staff Eagle Island was a definite plus and a reason to rest there.
Charley Bejna, who splits his time between Illinois and Knik, snoozed his cellphone alarm several times early Saturday in the log building in Shageluk where mushers slept. Before he knew it, he had overslept by about 2.5 hours, he said.
At first disappointed, Bejna said he really did need the extra sleep. The dogs probably didn't mind it either.
"I'm feeling good," he said after reaching Grayling later in the day. "I still have 14 dogs. They're happy. They're healthy and we'll do our eight-hour here and then head to Eagle Island."