EAGLE ISLAND - Robert Sorlie had the same edge two years ago that he had Saturday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race: The first to arrive at this checkpoint on the frozen Yukon River, comfortably ahead of the competition.
"We just went 14 hours nonstop," the 47-year-old Norwegian said as he pushed past a small group of greeters and parked his 15 dogs at the checkpoint 420 miles from the Nome finish line. Some of the animals were surprisingly frisky, yipping and jumping in place, despite a trail Sorlie described as soft.
Sorlie, a firefighter from Hurdal, Norway, went on to win the 2003 Iditarod, his second shot at the 1,100-mile race. In '02, he was rookie of the year, finishing in the top 10.
As the first to reach the handful of tents that make up the Eagle Island checkpoint at 11:30 a.m. AST, he said he's pretty sure of another victory.
"I shall try," he said, handing his dogs frozen bricks of ground beef. "It's good to be here. We made no stops, just to check booties and get quick snacks."
Sorlie dropped two dogs here - one with a sore leg and another that "psyched out," didn't want to run any more. That left him with 13, plenty to make it to Nome, he said. Two years ago, he had 12 at this point.
"This is normal for me," he said. "They look good. They're in good shape."
The only chink in his confidence came from his closest challenger, four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake.
Beating Sorlie would be a formidable challenge, said Buser's wife, Kathy Chapotone, who was waiting for her husband at Eagle Island.
"At this point, that's a huge lead," Chapotone said before her husband pulled in at 3:25 p.m. AST. "But things can always change in a heartbeat and you never give up."
Weather could become a factor as well. Temperatures were in the mid-30s and a freezing-rain advisory had been issued for Kaltag - the next checkpoint 70 miles up the trail and the point where the race swings west to the coast of Norton Sound and on to Nome.
Approaching the home stretch, the competition is heating up. Many of the front-runners, including Sorlie and Buser, have taken their mandatory 24-hour and 8-hour layovers. All are required to take an 8-hour rest at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.
As the race was winding up its sixth day Saturday, other leaders were 2003 runner-up Ramy Brooks, 36, of Healy; contending champion Mitch Seavey, 45, of Seward; and DeeDee Jonrowe, 51, of Willow.
Friday's front-runner, Paul Gebhardt, 48, of Kasilof, took his 24-hour layover at Anvik but was still among the top 10 when he clocked out of Grayling at 11:32 a.m. Saturday. While there, he reported that one of his dogs - a 3-year-old named Rita - had died about a half hour out of Anvik.
Gebhardt was cleared to continue the race with 15 dogs, said Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George, adding that the musher was "devastated" by the loss. A necropsy will be performed to attempt to determine the cause of death - the first in this year's race.
Three more mushers had dropped out by Saturday evening - 13-race veteran Charlie Boulding, 62, of Manley at Anvik; Gary McKellar, 47, of Wasilla at McGrath; and Scott Smith, 35, of Dubois, Wyo., at Ophir. That leaves 69 teams in the running, down from 79 at the start.
Boulding was down to nine dogs from 16 at the start, but the difficult decision to withdraw still took 11 hours.
A fisherman and trapper, he'd run the Iditarod 13 times and finished in the top ten eight times. His best finish was third in 1998. He won the Sterling Achievement Award in 1994 and was named most inspirational musher in 2003, when he started the race following surgery for colon cancer.