KALTAG - Norway's Kjetil Backen kept his lead Saturday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race but a pack of seasoned mushers were not far behind going into the last quarter of the race.
Backen arrived in Kaltag at the last checkpoint on the Yukon River at 2:22 p.m. Mushers John Baker of Kotzebue and Charlie Boulding of Manley arrived about two hours later, and only a few minutes apart. Mitch Seavey of Seward came in 16 minutes after Boulding, with Ramey Smyth of Big Lake arriving nearly four hours later.
On the trail to Kaltag were four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, former runner-up Ramy Brooks of Healy, Ed Iten of Kotzebue, three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park, Aaron Burmeister of Nenana/Nome and Tim Osmar of Kasilof. Nearly all of the top 12 mushers have at least one top-five finish in their Iditarod careers.
Backen's lead had shrunk by about an hour when he reached Kaltag, 2 hours, 1 minute before Baker. He had nearly a 3-hour lead when he left the Ruby checkpoint 146 miles back.
A record 87 mushers signed up for the 2004 Iditarod. This year's purse is more than $700,000 with a first-place prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.
Backen said at this point in the 1,112-mile race from Anchorage to Nome his lead, while nice, means little. There are still 261 miles to go to the finish and much of the trail is coastal, where teams can be exposed to bitterly cold winds and quick-moving blizzards.
"You keep going forward. We take it one leg at a time," said Backen, after feeding his dogs specially-formulated race snacks that look like frozen meat bricks.
He massaged the front leg of "Takk," a dog that led fellow Norwegian and 2003 Iditarod winner Robert Sorlie into Nome. Ten of the 12 dogs in Backen's team went to Nome last year with Sorlie. Backen, 34, is racing in his second Iditarod. He was 10th in 2002.
"Takk" means thank you in Norwegian. Backen said he would really like to get Takk all the way to Nome again. The dog was not pulling well because he had some tendinitis in his wrist, perhaps because the last section of trail was soft and punchy.
Backen said he rested his team more than once and camped out on the trail on the way to Kaltag, and would take more rest for the dogs in this Eskimo village of 230 people, where about one-fifth of the residents turned out to greet the first musher.
From Kaltag, it is 90 miles to the next checkpoint at Unalakleet - the second longest section of trail.
"I think we have to rest a little before we get to Nome," said Backen, who quickly got his team settled on beds of straw.
Sister Cynthia of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Kaltag scooped up a couple of Backen's discarded dog booties. Before the first musher arrived, she had predicted it would be Backen.
"John Baker! John Baker! John Baker!," Josephine Esmailka, who stood next to her, chanted hopefully, while peering through heavy snow to the trail out on the frozen Yukon River.
Sister Cynthia said with certainty she was wrong.
"I know it is going to be the Norwegian," she said.
Sister Rose, standing nearby, said it really didn't matter to her who was ahead, except for one thing.
"It would be nice for a new winner, somebody who has never won," she said.
Frank Madros Sr., reclining on the seat of his touring snowmobile, said he wanted it to be Boulding, a full-time musher, trapper and fisherman who came to Alaska in 1983 to live off the land. Boulding, who likes to wear his long, gray hair loose except for two tiny braids on either side of his face that he's adorned with yellow and red beads, is in his 12th Iditarod. His best finish in the Iditarod was third in 1998, but Boulding is a two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
"He act like an Indian. He don't act stuck up when he's in town. Charlie Boulding is different," Madros said. "I don't go for the Norwegian. He came over here to get the money and the championship and we never see him no more."