UNALAKLEET — Girdwood racer Nicolas Petit arrived in Unalakleet at 1:40 p.m. today in the lead of the 2018 Iditarod. DeeDee Jonrowe greeted the musher with a hug, and Petit planned to stay for a rest at this Bering Sea coast checkpoint as Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Mitch Seavey close in.
Petit, who is racing with 13 dogs, carried one husky in his sled. He quickly traded his heavy-duty "bunny boots" for sneakers.
After a string of wins in middle-distance races, Petit has set the pace for stretches of this slower-paced, relatively drama-free Iditarod. Seavey and Ulsom had temporarily passed a sleeping Petit — who was resting with his lead dog on his chest — on the long Yukon River run. But Petit said he awoke and gave chase, reclaiming the lead.
"I got to see how they were looking and gained a little bit of confidence," he said today.
Accounting for daylight saving time, Petit left Kaltag with a roughly half hour lead on Ulsom and Seavey, who departed within two minutes of each other.
Petit said he decided not to blow through Unalakleet (mile 737) because, "I'm hungry and there's bacon." Plus, he said, "dogs like checkpoints."
And what a checkpoint it is.
Here in Unalakleet, Iditarod volunteers, race officials and locals packed two rows of long tables at the bustling checkpoint building here Sunday morning, as residents Aurora and William "Middy" Johnson flipped sourdough pancakes, cooked bacon and brewed coffee.
Everyone waited for the first mushers to arrive.
From here, it is about 260 miles to Nome. The next checkpoints, up the windy Bering Sea coast, are sometimes among the toughest of the race.
"As you can see in our checkpoint, we have a lot of people, a lot of noise, a lot of visiting which is great," Middy Johnson said. "It's great for us. It kind of brings the community together."
Johnson competed in the 2010 Iditarod. His grandfather, Henry Ivanoff, was one of the 20 mushers who relayed diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925.
Early Sunday afternoon, temperatures hovered here around 7 degrees in Unalakleet. A group of children went sledding on the snowy hill between the checkpoint building and the trail below, that skirts the edge of this Bering Sea town, where about 750 people live.
The bales of straw were stacked. The teams' bags of gear and food laid out. And the spare sleds that mushers had sent to the checkpoint stood in a line.
"We started up the frying pans this morning and they'll quit sometime Thursday," Johnson said. "We go through about 50 gallons of sourdough starter, a couple hundred pounds of bacon and anything else that people bring in to eat."
Inside the checkpoint, two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie, who is snowmachining the trail this year, poured himself a cup of coffee. Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson watched the race tracker, playing on a large television screen that sat atop a pool table.
Mark Nordman, Iditarod race marshal and race director, ate bacon wrapped in a sourdough pancake — turning breakfast portable.
"I've been doing this 35 years," he said. "I've got it down."
Nordman said he would describe the 2018 Iditarod as both "exciting" and "calming." The trail has not been particularly treacherous this year. While teams got trapped in a few storms so far, those storms have not been as extreme as in years' past.
"The dogs I think do better when it's warm like this, and softer trail," Nordman said. "Everybody's just kind of chill."
Before the race, Nordman said a lack of sea ice would likely push a section of the upcoming trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk closer to the coast. However, he said, by Sunday it looked like the trail would remain on its typical course — cutting across the sea ice.
While Iditarod mushers Nic Petit, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and defending champion Mitch Seavey remained the three in the lead, Nordman said, anything could happen.
"It's definitely not over," he said. "It's been a really exciting race."
If he had to guess, he said, he would expect the first musher into Nome at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday — slower than the 2013 Iditarod, the last time the race followed the southern route, and much slower than the 2017 Iditarod, when Mitch Seavey set a new record.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect amount of time between Petit's departure and the other mushers because it did not account for the time change.)