FAIRBANKS - The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race was shaping up this morning as a duel between the top two mushers.
Jack Berry of Homer and Peter Butteri of Tok both left the Eagle checkpoint at 9:10 a.m. this morning. Berry has the advantage of 12 dogs to Butteri's nine. That gives Berry more power for the 150-mile run to Dawson.
Berry had been the first to reach Eagle, at 2:43 a.m. today, smashing by nearly two hours the record run from Circle City to Eagle with a run time of 33 hours, 13 minutes. Butteri showed up 28 minutes later, and four mushers beat 1999 champion Ramy Brooks' old record time of just over 35 hours. The 162-mile run from Circle to Eagle is along the Yukon River and covers mostly flat, windblown terrain.
By mid-morning, seven mushers had reached the checkpoint, 410 miles into the 1,023-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Thomas Tetz of Tagish, Yukon Territory, arrived in Eagle in third place and Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers in fourth place. Dave Dalton of Wasilla and Frank Turner of Whitehorse both arrived at Eagle at 5:10 a.m. Jerry Loudon of Two Rivers arrived at 8:20.
Juneau musher Deborah Bicknell, a 54-year-old rookie, is bringing up the rear, in 26th and last place. She left the Circle City checkpoint at 7:03 a.m. today with nine of her original 13 dogs still in her team.
Earlier in the race, Dave Dalton of Wasilla was in the lead Tuesday in the race's fourth day.
Dalton was the first musher to leave Slaven's Cabin, an unofficial checkpoint midway between the 158-mile run from Circle City to Eagle, the last checkpoint in Alaska.
Dalton, Butteri and Berry were leading the race, race officials said. Several other teams including Tetz, Turner, Dave Olesen of Hoarfrost, Northwest Territories, Zirkle had moved through Slavin's Cabin by late afternoon Tuesday.
William Kleedehn of Carcross, Yukon; Fred Jordan of Tanana; and Thomas Wiget of Whitehorse dropped out Monday in Circle City, leaving 26 of the race's 29 original mushers still on the 1,000-mile trail from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
At least a half dozen teams camped out Tuesday night along the trail between Circle City and Eagle.
Italian musher Ararad Khatchikain who was feeding and bedding his team down on straw beds in Circle City said the course was difficult. He told KTUU-TV in Anchorage that he was running the race to learn as much as possible. Khatchikain, from Tarvisio, teaches children in Italy about dog mushing.
``I am here to learn but learn in a hard way though because I had some trouble with my rookie Italian dog,'' he said. ``This is a very, very tough race.''
Khatchikain said the race was more challenging than the better known 1,150-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race which he completed in 1996, placing 45th.
``I cannot recall things that I've seen here in the first three days,'' he said.
Berry was the first musher to arrive in Circle City on the run from Central, but one of his dogs beat him to the checkpoint.
Berry was halfway between the two checkpoints when Nitro, one of his finest and most experienced dogs, got loose and bolted off into the night.
Berry had been switching his leaders after a stretch of overflow. When he went to put Nitro in wheel, the position right in front of the sled, his team pulled the snowhook.
Assuming Nitro would hang out as he always does, Berry let him loose and stopped his team. When everything was settled, he looked up to see Nitro booking it at a full lope down the trail toward Circle.
He never looked back.
``I pulled the hook and went chasing after him,'' said Berry, who looked haggard with his shoulderlength hair shooting off in every direction. ``I never saw a glimpse of him. I would go up and check the tracks and he was making all the right turns.''
The dog was even pacing himself, quickly falling into a steady, energy-saving trot. And he never stopped. The dog passed a popular cabin waystation without pausing. When he got to Circle, he correctly negotiated a turn that could've taken him down the Steese Highway and back to Central.
A short while later, he showed up at the checkpoint where Amy Wright, wife of musher Peter Butteri, caught him.
``He was here a half hour ahead of me,'' Berry said with a chuckle.
Nitro, 6, is a mainstay of the team. He finished last year's Quest in lead of the eighth-place team. That experience made a frightening morning into a great story to tell everyone.
``I think he knows his way to Whitehorse,'' Berry said.