TAKOTNA, Alaska -- Linwood Fiedler of Willow was the first musher out of this riverside village Wednesday as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moved toward the ghost town of Ophir.
Fiedler, who gave up a career as a child therapist to become a full-time musher, left Takotna at 4:11 a.m. (AST). Defending champion Doug Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., departed at 5:17 a.m.
Eleven other teams were resting early Wednesday at Takotna, some 725 miles to the finish line at Nome. But they appeared unsure whether to cover Fiedler's departure or let him head up the trail alone -- counting on the inability of his dog team to stick to its record pace.
"Until they successfully pull something off, it's hard to give them a lot of credibility," said three-time Iditarod champ Jeff King of Denali Park, who was listed in fourth place.
Fiedler has been an Iditarod regular since 1989. He's been a consistent Top-20 finisher and has cracked the Top 10 list twice. But he is not a household name among the front-runners, and he has faltered in recent years. After tying his best-ever finish with an eighth in 1998, Fiedler fell to 13th in 1999 and 19th last year.
But he hopes to change all that this year. Fiedler spent the summer hauling tourists around the Mendenhall Glacier above Juneau with his dogs, and he came into this race with a plan.
Fiedler said his team has been trained for endurance, with an ability to make long runs between stops.
While other mushers stopped their teams to camp and rest on the 85-mile stretch of trail from Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range to Nikolai, Fiedler came straight across in a straight nine-hour run.
Fiedler appeared a little tired and harried Tuesday afternoon as he readied his team to hit the trail out of Nikolai. He told the Anchorage Daily News he was surprised he didn't have much company at the front.
"I thought more people would be on our schedule," Fiedler said.
Three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake was running third, while Jerry Riley of Nenana, was holding down the fifth-place spot. Rick Swenson, from Two Rivers, and the Iditorod's only five-time winner, was running sixth.
With the weather looking generally mild for the Alaska Interior, more mushers than usual can be expected to press far into the race before taking the 24-hour rest stop required sometime during the journey to Nome.
Swingley said he was figuring on a long stop at the race's halfway point in a deserted ghost town on the Innoko River.
"Life's too easy in Takotna," Swingley said. "I'll probably go to Iditarod."
Takotna is the first checkpoint after McGrath, and has become a favored 24-hour stopping point in recent years because of the great feed the locals put on.
Ophir, another 38 miles down the trail, also is popular because the lone log cabin there tends to be quiet.
Many of the leaders were looking forward to the 24-hour stop because of the chance to rest.
Swingley said he'd had only had six hours of sleep since the race left Willow on Sunday's restart, and Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof said the rough trail hadn't helped the Achilles tendon he injured earlier in the year.
Sixty-eight mushers began the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome on Saturday. Two have scratched..