UNALAKLEET - Every year around now, the same sickness grips this town on Alaska's Norton Sound coast.
"Everyone gets Iditarod fever," said longtime resident Ray Caudill. "Everyone's trying to guess who'll be the first one in."
This year, most bets were on Norwegian Robert Sorlie to arrive first on Sunday night in the community of 725 and possibly go on to win the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Sorlie met one of those two bets on Sunday night, as he was the first into Unalakleet at 8:45 p.m.
Sorlie, the 47-year-old firefighter from Hurdal, rested for five hours at the previous checkpoint in Kaltag. He was first out of Kaltag at 8:44 a.m. Sunday, leaving with 12 dogs for the 90-mile trek to Unalakleet.
After Unalakleet, it's another 260 miles along the wind-scrubbed coast to the Nome finish line.
Sorlie - the only musher to reach Unalakleet as of 10 p.m. Sunday - was followed nearly an hour after he departed Kaltag by veteran Ramy Brooks, 36, of Healy, runner-up in the 2003 race won by Sorlie. Brooks left Kaltag with 13 dogs only six minutes after checking in.
As of 10 p.m. Sunday, 15 other mushers had left Kaltag, where above-freezing temperatures promised a slow, slushy trail. The temperature in Unalakleet at 3:30 p.m. AST was 34 degrees with southwest winds of 10 mph.
Four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake left at 10:53 a.m., followed just before noon by veteran John Baker of Kotzebue and three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park at 1:46 p.m.
Last year's champion Mitch Seavey of Seward pulled out of the checkpoint at 2:06 p.m., followed two minutes later by veteran Ed Iten of Kasilof. Norwegian rookie Bjonar Anderson left at 2:46 p.m., followed a minute later by veteran DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow and three minutes after that by four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.
All mushers have taken their required 24-hour layovers. All still face a mandatory eight-hour rest at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.
Other front-runners at Kaltag included Lance Mackey of Kasilof, winner of last month's 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and former Quest winner Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers.
Also at Kaltag was 2000 runner-up Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, the only team with a dog death in the race this year. A necropsy determined the death Saturday was caused by gastric ulcers and anemia, said race marshal Mark Nordman. Gebhardt was cleared to continue on to Nome.
Caudill, observing from Unalakleet, said his own personal favorite musher was 13-race veteran Charlie Boulding of Manley. Boulding scratched from the race in Anvik on Saturday after his team dwindled down to nine dogs. Boulding, 62, has said the race this year will be his last.
So Sorlie it was, Caudill said, going by the buzz volleyed around by breakfast diners at Brown's Lodge, where he works as a cook.
"It's just about the only thing people are talking about," he said. "I'm into it as much as I can be, but this morning I'm pretty much stuck in the kitchen - and there are no dogs in the kitchen."
One other race veteran pulled out Sunday. Bill Cotter, 59, of Nenana, scratched at 10:30 a.m. in Anvik, citing sick dogs among his remaining 14-member team. That left 68 teams in the race, down from the original field of 79.
Rachael Scdoris, the legally blind rookie from Bend, Ore., was still in the running, though nearly in last place.
The 20-year-old musher was at the halfway point at Iditarod, five minutes behind Paul Ellering of Grey Eagle, Minn. Ellering is a former professional wrestler and former Iditarod competitor who is serving as Scdoris' "visual interpreter."
Closer to the finish line in Unalakleet, race fans were fixated on the leaders, who were expected to begin arriving by mid-evening Sunday.
"The kids get really excited around here - and the adults, too," said Bret Hanson, owner of Peace on Earth pizzeria. "The kids get out their autograph books and head out there to wait for the mushers to get in."
The first musher to Nome in the 33rd running of the Iditarod will receive $72,066.67 and a pickup truck. The total purse this year is $750,107.
For updates on race standings, look on the Web at http://www.iditarod.com.