WASILLA - Martin Buser of Big Lake was a bargain at $1,500 when final bidding began in the 2003 Idita-Rider auction on Friday.
"This is a four-time champ, you guys, and last year's winner," auction coordinator Deby Trosper told the 89 people vying by phone for a chance to ride in a musher's sled for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 1 in Anchorage.
Suddenly a bidding war erupted from the small conference phone at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla.
"$1,600!" shouted out a caller from New Jersey assigned the code name HAC, who briefly topped initial bidder, DR3 of California. But DR3 hung in there, volleying counter offers with rivals until he stopped the crowd cold with his winning bid.
"DR3 gets Martin Buser for $4,100 dollars," Trosper said in a slight drawl. "Congratulations!"
And so it went as callers from throughout Alaska, the rest of the country and Canada yelled out their offers, starting with the mushers who attracted the highest initial bids. With only 63 sleds available, the bidding was intense even for unknown rookies who initially commanded the required minimum bid of $500.
Altogether, bids totaled $103,557. Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said that's the second largest Idita-Rider tally since the Iditarod Trail Committee began the auction in 1995 to raise funds for the race.
"These were the most active bidders I've ever seen," Hooley said.
The winners get to ride the first 11 miles of the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. About 75 mushers are expected to compete in the 31st running of the Iditarod.
Beside Buser, other mushers attracted big bids Friday. Veteran musher Charlie Boulding of Manley brought in $3,500. Five-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers attracted $2,600. Iditarod rookie Melanie Shirilla, wife of four-time winner Doug Swingley, brought in $2,500. So did Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, who in 2000 became the first woman to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
As it does every year, Cabela's, a major mail order supplier of outdoors gear based in Nebraska, paid $7,500 to lock a bid on Jeff King. Cabela's is King's major sponsor and donates the sled ride every year to a Make-A-Wish-Foundation child, Trosper said.
Besides the Make-A-Wish-Foundation children riding with King and other mushers, the group of Idita-Riders has included well-known entertainers (such as soap opera star Susan Lucci and comedienne Joan Rivers), corporate executives and tourists wanting an up-close-and-personal experience from the Iditarod.
Most winning bids were far smaller, particularly toward the end as unfamiliar names came up.
One constant in the lower range was DS5 from Arizona who was outbid on his early choices - veteran musher Mitch Seavey and his son, Tyrell. With every low bid, DS5 yelled out "a thousand dollars!" only to be topped by someone else bidding just $100 more.
His voice strained, DS5 began shouting "eleven hundred dollars," but that prompted a string of larger offers. Iditarod volunteers monitoring the auction whispered, "Let him get it."
In the third to last bid, DS5 cast his $1,100 for a ride with rookie Lachlan Clarke of Colorado Springs, Colo. When no one else followed with a counter offer, everyone at the Iditarod office cheered.
"I have a feeling I've been turned into a legend of sorts," DS5 said later in a phone interview from his home in Gilbert, Ariz.
DS5 is actually Stephen Drake, a new fan of the Iditarod. Drake, an engineer and planner for a Phoenix power company, said he's hooked. He read five books on the race last summer.
"Until a year ago I didn't even know what the Iditarod was other than a sled dog race," he said.