UNALAKLEET - Two Iditarod champions jockeyed for the lead Sunday as the teams arrived on Alaska's windy, unsheltered western coast in the final quarter of the 1,100-mile sled dog race.
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Three-time winner Jeff King, of Denali, arrived in the Bering Sea coast community of Unalakleet at 12:26 p.m. He was followed 22 minutes later by four-time winner Doug Swingley. Third-place musher DeeDee Jonrowe, of Willow, who has finished second twice, arrived in Unalakleet about five hours behind.
King, 46, received $2,500 in gold and a trophy for arriving first on the coast after a 90-mile run along an old Alaska Native trade route from the Yukon River village of Kaltag.
The two Iditarod veterans struggled for the lead on the portage path through mountains, taiga and tundra that is now a snowmobile highway between the coastal Eskimos and the Athabascan Indians of the interior.
Aside from high winds and a snowed-in trail, both had problems on the way.
King was about 30 miles out of Kaltag when he nearly lost his team after hitting a large snow drift.
King tumbled from his sled and one of his dogs came unhooked from his tugline. While King retrieved the dog, the team started running down the trail, but stopped after King called for his lead dog, Salem.
"They were out of sight," King said. "As I plodded down the trail, getting ready to cry, I made out the silhouette of the sled and I hurried because I knew they could start again."
King said Swingley passed him about 15 miles later when he stopped to feed his dogs near a rest stop called Old Woman cabin.
But Swingley lost time when he followed the wrong trail into Unalakleet and ended up on the other side of town.
"I went on the old trail and ended up on the other end of town and had to turn all the way around," Swingley said.
Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., is still confident he can close the gap during the remaining 250 miles to Nome that will take dog teams across flat expanses of snow and ice that are constantly flayed by frigid winds.
"He had a four-hour lead on me at one point and it disappeared really quick," said Swingley, 52, who in 1995 was the first musher from outside Alaska to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
High winds on Sunday blasted through Unalakleet. Streams of snow gusted across the ground like quick white phantoms, and some small planes could not maneuver on the runway without groups of people pushing them.
These are the conditions teams in the world's longest sled dog race will encounter while running up the iced-in coast.
Leading teams will likely arrive in the old gold rush town of Nome on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Unalakleet is the 17th of 24 checkpoints in towns, villages and wilderness cabins spread along the route from the untimed ceremonial start in Anchorage to Nome. This community of 700 people is the largest mushers have passed through since leaving the official starting line in Willow on March 5.
Meanwhile, Iditarod officials said a third dog has died in the race. Cupid, a 4-year-old female on the team of Chugiak musher Jim Lanier, died Sunday between the Galena and Nulato checkpoints. Race officials said a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death.