TANANA - Norwegian Robert Sørlie was the first musher to leave the Tanana checkpoint, maintaining his lead in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"Everything's fine," Sørlie said. "I'm having fun."
Sørlie departed at 5 p.m. Tuesday with 15 dogs after resting the team for about five hours. At the previous checkpoint in Manley, the soft-spoken musher dropped a dog because of shoulder problems. He expected to arrive at Ruby, 115 miles down the trail, by this afternoon, after resting his dogs a couple hours along the trail.
Sørlie credited his first-place status to his rigorous attention to his dogs along the trail.
"I'm constantly checking them, at least once an hour," he said.
John Baker of Kotzebue who was in second place said he was enjoying the new trail so far.
"Parts are soft and parts are good. But overall the trail is actually fine. It's been a pleasure," he said.
Baker left Tanana at 6:03 p.m. on Tuesday, followed by three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park at 8:47 p.m., four-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake at 8:58 p.m. and Ramy Brooks of Healy at 9:05 p.m.
Locals said they were thrilled that the Iditarod this year was passing through part of the route taken during the 1925 run from Nenana to Nome to deliver diphtheria serum. Residents said they hope to see the race run through Tanana at least every other year.
"We're in the middle of Alaska," said James Folger. "Look at a map and Tanana is smack dab in the middle of Alaska."
Leading mushers as of 9:30 a.m. today, with times out of Tanana:
1. Robert Sørlie, 5:00 p.m. Tuesday
2. John Baker, 6:03 p.m. Tuesday
3. Jeff King, 8:47 p.m. Tuesday
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Dozens of residents in the village of 310 warmly greeted the teams as they arrived at the checkpoint. The arrival of Manley musher Charlie Boulding, who was in ninth place arriving in Tanana at 3:55 p.m., brought cheers and hoots from the crowd.
"Way to go Charlie!"
Boulding left in sixth place at 9:50 p.m. on Tuesday.
Baker, who finished third last year, arrived in Tanana about 45 minutes behind Sørlie. King arrived about 2 1/2 hours later to slip into third place ahead of Buser, the defending champion, who was less than an hour behind King.
Ramey Smyth of Big Lake arrived in fifth place and Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., arrived in sixth. Smyth and Barron, who are second-generation Iditarod mushers, left in 23rd and 24th places, respectively, at 3:10 and 3:20 a.m. this morning.
As of midmorning today, 37 of the race's 64 mushers had passed through Tanana but none had arrived in Ruby. Another 15 teams were in Tanana, but hadn't checked out yet. Eight teams were on the trail between Manley and Tanana, while four teams were still in the Manley checkpoint.
"The trail was 15 feet wide... smooth as a table top with nice snow," said Lynda Plettner of Houston, who arrived in eighth place and left in 17th. "You could not ask for more."
The restart - which marks when the real racing begins - was moved north of Fairbanks for the first time, due to a lack of snow in Southcentral Alaska. As a result, the first 330 miles of the route in this year's race is new to even veteran teams and the top teams have begun jockeying for position early.
Sørlie, a 45-year-old airport fireman, is running only his second Iditarod, but he has already developed a reputation as a serious contender.
He finished in ninth place last year to claim top rookie honors and posted a new rookie record, finishing the race in nine days, 13 hours, 44 minutes. Prior to that no rookie had ever finished the race in less than 10 days.
Sørlie's ninth-place finish was the highest finish by a rookie, since 1992, when Montana musher Doug Swingley also finished ninth. Swingley, who is not racing this year, went on to win the 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2001 Iditarod races.
Sørlie began mushing in 1970 and is a three-time winner of Norway's premier long-distance sled dog race, the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarkslpet.
Willow musher Linwood Fiedler, who was second in 2001 but scratched last year, moved from 24th to 10th place Tuesday, arriving in Tanana about four hours behind Srlie. Fiedler, who left in 16th place, said the first day on the trail was pretty nice.
"It was great northern lights last night, one of the very few times I've ever seen northern lights that I wasn't freezing by butt off at the same time," said Fiedler, who runs summer sled dog tours on the glaciers near Juneau. "It was a beautiful night."