WASILLA, Alaska - Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof was first out of Finger Lake today as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moved toward the towering Alaska Range and the next checkpoint at Rainy Pass.
Gebhardt, who finished sixth in last year's Iditarod, paused at the tent checkpoint only long enough to sign in and log out. He departed at 7:19 a.m. (AST).
Bill Cotter of Nenana was running second, arriving at Finger Lake at 7:06 a.m. Then came John Baker of Kotzebue, arriving at 7:20; DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, at 7:46; Hans Gatt of Atlin, British Columbia, at 8:08; Tony Willis of Anchorage, at 8:22 a.m., Jon Little of Kasilof, at 8:23; and Aaron Burmeister of Nome.
Burmeister checked in at Finger Lake, 131 miles into the race, at 8:49 a.m.
A record 81 teams took to the trail Sunday from the restart at Wasilla to officially begin the 1,150-mile race to Nome. The trail goes through Knik, home of Joe Redington, Sr. who started the race in 1973 and died of cancer last June at age 82. From there it continues through muskeg and forests.
Given the crowded field, the top mushers said they likely would forgo resting much early on to put as much distance between themselves and the others. Warm weather, however, could change that strategy.
The teams, which include 29 rookies, are competing for a share of a $525,000 purse, the largest ever. The race was begun to commemorate the lifesaving relay of diphtheria serum to Nome by mushers in 1925.
Doug Swingley -- the Lincoln, Mont., musher who holds the 1995 course record of nine days, two hours and 42 minutes -- refused to say whether he can break his own record this year. If temperatures remained in the 30s, other mushers said it would be difficult. The warm weather will force them to go slow, perhaps moving mostly at night, so as not to overheat the dogs.
Swingley said 11 of the dogs in his team this year were on last year's winning team.
``They are really animated and resilient,'' he said. ``They don't need much rest.''
Three-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, who placed second last year, said he's hoping to avoid the injuries that forced him to drop six dogs early in the 1999 race. While many of the dogs are the same, this year's team feels stronger, he said.
``It feels like they're heading toward a peak,'' Buser said.
Jonrowe said Sunday she has an inexperienced team this year, but will try and win if given the opportunity. She was in second place last year when her lead dog refused to go on and she was forced to scratch. It was the first time in 16 Iditarods that she didn't finish.
Two weeks ago, Jonrowe said she had a mishap with her new lead dog, 3-year-old Softail. An ice hook snagged his back leg while she was practicing with another team. The injury required 10 stitches.
``I couldn't cry. I couldn't say anything. I just picked him up and put him in the sled,'' she said.
The dog's injury healed well. She is relying on him to lead the way over two mountain ranges, along rivers and miles of frozen sea ice. But, just in case, she has two other dogs that could lead the team.
One musher already has scratched from the race.
Ted English from Wasilla flipped his sled and landed hard on his back on glare ice Saturday afternoon near Eagle River.
The 61-year-old part-time carpenter struck his head on the snow hook and hurt his right leg and hip. English decided Sunday that his injuries were serious enough to force him to become the first musher to drop out.