RAINY PASS - One of Aaron Burmeister's earliest memories is being picked up and placed on his father's sled for the ride across the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The year was 1979 and Burmeister was just a toddler. But the memory stuck. That's when the idea settled in his heart and mind that he someday would race dogs in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome and pass under that burled arch as a musher himself.
"Dad was my biggest hero. I said when I grow up I'm going to do it," Burmeister said.
He first had to make a deal with his father. Richard Burmeister ran the Iditarod twice, and finished 41st both times. He told his son he could run the Iditarod as a high school senior, but only if he continued his education and went to college.
Aaron Burmeister, 25, finished 37th in 1994, his rookie year.
He kept to his promise and sold his dog team. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and got a teaching degree.
But mushing and the Iditarod were never far from his thoughts. He spent the last two years of college rebuilding his team.
"I'd like to be in the winner's circle," Burmeister said as he put purple booties on his dogs' feet and prepared to leave the Rainy Pass checkpoint and head toward the treacherous Dalzell Gorge. He's competing in his fifth Iditarod.
Last year, Burmeister was in the top 10 at the same point in the race. He came in 30th, his best finish in four Iditarods. This year, he pulled into Rainy Pass well back in the pack.
"People have been setting a fast pace," Burmeister said.
He thinks some of the mushers are pushing their dogs too hard and predicts he'll catch up. He chose to give his young team plenty of rest - 16 hours since the start of the race.
Burmeister himself had snatched only about three hours of sleep, two of those atop his sled bag after pulling his team to the side of the trail.
"When I was a rookie, I had a hard time with sleep deprivation. You learn to cope without sleep," he said.
Burmeister, who lives in Nome and works as a heavy equipment operator during the summers so he can "play with dogs all winter," said he'd like to get married someday and have a family.
But for now, he said, it's all about mushing. The Iditarod owns him.
"It is an addiction," Burmeister said. "It is worse than drugs, drinking. You can't get it out of your system."
Even though he thinks it would be unfair to ask a woman to make mushing her life too, he can't help but think maybe the right one will come along. "If I had someone who liked it as much as I did, that would be the greatest thing in the world," he said.
In the meantime, Burmeister says he's not lonely.
"You have the dogs. They're like family."