TAKOTNA - While the front-runners in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were battling for the lead Wednesday, more than a dozen mushers were getting spoiled at the Takotna checkpoint.
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Jan Newton and her husband, Dick, have run the Iditarod checkpoint at Takotna for 30 years and know just what the mushers want.
"Any musher gets steak. Sometimes we have lobster, sometimes it's steak and crab," Jan Newton said.
The 70-year-old pulled pies out of the oven and grilled up steaks and fries to serve to the mushers at the checkpoint in this village nestled in the rolling hills along the Takotna River about 700 miles from the finish line in Nome.
"They always get a steak," she said. "They've earned it."
Ramy Brooks, a 38-year-old from Healy, said he was really sick during the 2000 race when he arrived in Takotna. He was able to see a doctor who helped him get back on the trail and finish fourth. It wasn't until after the race that he learned he had pneumonia.
"They make it pretty comfortable. That's why I come here," said Brooks, who was in 16th place.
Twenty-five miles up the trail, Lance Mackey of Fairbanks was the first musher to leave Ophir and head toward Iditarod, the race's halfway point.
He was followed about 312 hours later by Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who was third last year. Mitch Seavey of Seward, who won the race in 2004, was third, followed by Ed Iten of Kotzebue, who finished seventh in 2006.
The Takotna checkpoint is open 24 hours a day. It's where mushers know a long table with a red and white tablecloth awaits them. It's where they can get warm, dry out their clothes, commiserate with fellow mushers and contemplate the trail ahead.
"It is kind of crazy," Newton said, as she pulled cherry pies from the oven, stopping for a second to give instructions to about 40 volunteers who keep the food flowing and the mushers fed.
And Newton serves up more than food. She remembers some of these mushers from when they were young men. Now many of them have families of their own.
"They are like family, mostly," Newton said.
The Newtons try to give the mushers what they want. All they have to do is ask. If it's not on the menu, it will be, if Jan Newton has the ingredients.
"They will feed you as much as you can eat. They really spoil you here," said Aaron Burmeister, a 31-year-old from Nenana, as he bit into a fried egg and bacon sandwich. "I asked them if they could make it and they said, 'No problem."'
Each community along the 1,100-mile Iditarod trail puts out the welcome mat for the mushers, Brooks said.
"The kids in Nikolai gave us moose soup, which was wonderful," he said.
About a dozen college students from Norway were seated at one of the tables. Dick Newton, 76, is teaching the students about hunting and trapping and living in the wilderness. The students are staying in Alaska for three months.
One of the students is Petter Ekran, a 21-year-old from Trondheim, Norway, younger brother of rookie Sigrid Ekran, who was in 18th place Wednesday, just behind Burmeister.
"I am pretty impressed," Ekran said, when asked about his sister who arrived in Nikolai with a broken nose after a particularly bad spill. "She is very strong mentally."