Mackey takes Iditarod lead at Nikolai

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

TALKEETNA - Defending champion Lance Mackey was the first musher to leave the Nikolai checkpoint Tuesday and take the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Mackey, a Fairbanks musher who last year became the first musher to get back-to-back wins in the 1,100-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the even longer Iditarod, rested his team for nearly five hours before getting back on the trail.

Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell sits in 77th place after checking into Rohn at 3:35 p.m. as of 8 p.m. Tuesday. Up next for Bicknell is a 75-mile journey to Nikolai.

Norway's Kjetil Backen was the first musher to reach the checkpoint at Nikolai, checking in at 10:39 a.m. with 15 dogs.

Backen, of Porsbrunn, Norway, coasted into the checkpoint, 401 miles into the 1,100-mile race. Told he was in the lead, he said, "I can see that."

Backen told onlookers the going was rough on the frozen Kuskokwim River.

"I fall over but it's all right," he said. "No problem."

Veteran Gerry Willomitzer of Whitehorse, Yukon, was second in to Nikolai, population 109, the first of many Native villages along trail to Nome. Willomitzer, a veteran Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race competitor, clocked in at 11:17 a.m. with 14 dogs.

Last year's runner-up, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, was next, arriving at 11:33 a.m. with all 16 dogs. He was followed three minutes later by Mackey with 15 dogs.

Ten minutes behind Mackey was four-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, with all 16 dogs.

Less than an hour later, three more mushers were in. Three-time Yukon Quest winner Hans Gatt of Whitehorse beat Hugh Neff of Skagway by a minute. Next came 2004 Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey of Seward.

Rick Swenson of Two Rivers - the only five-time Iditarod winner - arrived at 1:13 p.m. with a full team.

Approaching Nikolai was four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake.

Mushers next will head west to McGrath, a Kuskokwim River community of 400 in Alaska's interior. The 54 mile-stretch is mostly flat, passing through stands of spruce and alders, as well as the river itself. It's a fairly easy run if the weather cooperates.

But race organizers said unusually high temperatures along the early stretch of the trail are the main concern in the Iditarod so far.

Race spokesman Chas St. George said some areas were reporting temperatures in the 30s, which "is too hot for the dogs to run in." A stretch between the checkpoint at Rainy Pass and Nikolai reported a high of 43, according to the National Weather Service.

St. George said last year about this time, temperatures were in the zero-degree range in this part of the trail.

At the same time, teams are dealing with heavy snow all along the trail.

"But there are no blizzard conditions," St. George said, "Everybody's moving."

About 20 dogs have been dropped so far, but there are no serious casualties, according to St. George. He said the numbers were tapering off.

"Usually in the first third of the race, mushers expect to drop a lot of dogs. This is an area for a lot of opportunities for sprains or other injuries."

Two mushers scratched Tuesday. Tom Roig of Shreve, Ohio, dropped out, citing concern for his health and the health of his team. Joe Garnie of Teller also quit, citing health issues with his dog team. A record field of 93 mushers remains in the running.

Until mushers begin taking a mandatory 24-hour layover and two eight-hour rests, the race is fluid.

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