Paul Gebhardt first musher out of Ophir

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

TAKOTNA, Alaska - Ken Anderson's dogs were impatient to get back to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, baying and pawing the air during a brief stop Wednesday.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

"I'm going through," the 35-year-old Fairbanks musher told checkpoint volunteers at the same time that defending champion Lance Mackey was sleeping in the village church. Four minutes later Anderson's team bounded out, chasing after other race front-runners led by Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt in one of the warmest races in memory.

Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell sits in 80th place after reaching Nikolai at 9:02 p.m. Wednesday.

The 50-year-old Gebhardt, the second-place finisher last year, was the first musher out of Ophir on the 1,100-mile trail to Nome on Alaska's western coast. Ophir is 609 miles from the finish line in Nome.

Gebhardt left the ghost town checkpoint at 12:52 p.m., hours before the next musher - Hugh Neff of Skagway - departed at 4:18 p.m.

Others arriving at Ophir included four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward. Anderson, Mackey's neighbor, was the 10th musher there, clocking in at 2:57 p.m.

Mackey, who last year became the first ever to record back-to-back wins in the 1,100-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod, remained in Takotna for the mandatory 24-hour layover that no musher has yet completed in this race. Mackey won't be able to leave again until about 5 a.m. Thursday.

After emerging from a nap, Mackey said he had planned to go farther, but his dogs were dragging and not eating. He had to drop Hobo, a leader that was badly injured in an ongoing rivalry with Larry, another leader. Some of his dogs have been coughing, and one female is in heat, he said.

But the biggest factor affecting his dogs were temperatures that have reached into the 40s, far from the subzero weather his dogs love. Mackey said his team was thriving during the Yukon Quest, when temperatures plunged as low as 60 degrees below zero.

"The warm weather just saps them," he said, rubbing his eyes as he sat in the Takotna community center. "I'm pretty good about reading my dogs and they were telling me to stop."

It took him almost three hours to run the 18-mile stretch from the previous checkpoint at McGrath, because he kept stopping to switch his leaders. All have been running unenthusiastically, he said. But the long rest is already paying off: They're eating well again.

"I know I just need to get the team back to normal," Mackey said before heading out to take another long nap himself.

Other mushers also chose to take their 24 hours in Takotna, considered by many to be one of the friendliest villages along the trail.

The community of 50 puts on a huge welcome, treating mushers to a bounty of food, including steak, baked potatoes and homemade pies. The school closes for the week so children can haul water for the mushers, lay out straw for the teams and serve as official pooper scoopers. The women cook and men serve as dog-handlers and snowmobile drivers.

"What you do for one musher, you've got do for all," said Jan Newton, who has been on kitchen duty since 1974, one year after the Iditarod began. "I enjoy doing it. With cabin fever and all, it's nice to see a lot of different faces."

Taking advantage of the plentiful burgers and fries were Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon, and Warren Palfrey of Yellowknife, Northwest Territory.

The warm weather was no problem for them or their dogs, the mushers said. They have trained in similar conditions.

In fact, Schnuelle still had all 16 of his dogs, which have short coats. He said he also is running mostly at night, when temperatures drop.

"That's enough to make a difference," he said. "I like this weather and I think the dogs like it."

But musher Jessica Hendricks of Two Rivers blamed the effects the warm weather had on her team when she scratched Wednesday in Nikolai with only seven dogs remaining. Corvallis, Ore., neurosurgeon Cliff Roberson also scratched Wednesday at the Rohn checkpoint after suffering minor eye injuries.

Ninety-one mushers remain in the running.

In its 36th running, the Iditarod commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.

The modern-day Iditarod trail crosses frozen rivers, dense woods and two mountain ranges, then goes along the dangerous sea ice up the Bering Sea shore to the finish line under Nome's burled arch. Along the way, mushers can encounter temperatures far below zero, blinding winds and long stretches of frigid overflow.

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