Kasilof musher Jon Little was the first competitor to reach the Central checkpoint late Tuesday during the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Little, an Iditarod veteran but a Quest rookie, pulled into Central - the second-to-last checkpoint, just 177 miles from the finish line in Fairbanks - at 9:32 p.m. AST Tuesday. Central is a small settlement along the Steese Highway.
Lance Mackey, another Quest rookie from Kasilof, was close behind Little, arriving in Central at 10:05 p.m., followed just seven minutes later by Skagway's Hugh Neff, a Quest veteran.
Little was the first musher to leave Circle - the checkpoint immediately before Central - at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday. He stayed in Circle just 12 minutes, by far the shortest layover of the leading mushers.
Mackey was the second musher to leave Circle, at 7:42 a.m., followed one minute later by Neff.
Quest veteran William Kleedehn of Carcross, Yukon Territory, left Circle at 9:23 a.m., David Dalton of Healy departed at 10:02 a.m. and Gerry Willomitzer of Whitehorse - who had led the race a few days ago but has been hampered by a broken sled - left at 10:20 a.m.
Mackey, Neff, Kleedehn and Dalton each stayed at Circle for nearly six hours; Willomitzer stayed about one hour. Little arrived in Central with a team of 11 dogs, while Mackey, Neff and Kleedehn departed Circle with 10 dogs each, Dalton had 13 dogs and Willomitzer had 11 remaining in his team.
Sebastian Schnuelle was the only other musher reported clear of Circle as of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. Six other mushers were at Circle, and the last remaining musher was en route to the village on the Yukon River, at the end of the Steese Highway.
For updates on the race, look on the Web at http://www.yukonquest.com.
From Central, it is 77 miles to the Angel Creek checkpoint - the last checkpoint before the finish line. Mushers are required to take an eight-hour layover at Angel Creek so veterinarians can conduct a final check of the teams.
Mushers must contend with 3,650-foot Eagle Summit on the trail out of Central, elevation 932 feet. Eagle Summit is the second-highest point on the Yukon Quest trail.
The 1,026-mile Yukon Quest, in its 22nd year, started Feb. 13 in Whitehorse.