WHITE MOUNTAIN - The sled dogs of Iditarod musher Jeff King took a last long rest on beds of straw in the sunlit village of White Mountain on Tuesday before most of them trotted off to the finish line in Nome.
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King left White Mountain at 2:34 p.m. AST, but soon had to return to drop off Bernard, one of the leaders of his sled-dog team, who wouldn't run. King estimated he lost about 20 minutes before again setting out for Nome with 12 dogs.
Shortly before 10 p.m. AST, he arrived at the checkpoint in Safety, where he stayed for only seven minutes before embarking on the last 22 miles of the race.
King, who is several hours ahead of second place musher Doug Swingley, said he expected to be standing with his team under Nome's burled arch late Tuesday, but the late arrival in Safety probably meant he wouldn't cross the finish line before early today.
"I'm a little more relaxed than I was," King said during a mandatory eight-hour stop in White Mountain, 80 miles from Nome. "My hold on the lead is in pretty good shape now. It would take a lightning bolt or something to stop me now."
King maintained about a 212 hour lead over Swingley on Tuesday. Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, John Baker of Kotzebue and Bjornar Andersen of Oslo, Norway, also left the White Mountain checkpoint, but were hours behind King.
King was poised to join Swingley, Martin Buser and Susan Butcher as four-time winners of the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. Rick Swenson is the race's only five-time winner.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race passes through 24 checkpoints in villages and wilderness cabins strung along the trail across Alaska. The trail stretches over two Alaska mountain ranges, over the frozen Yukon River, and a final stretch of the Bering Sea coast, whose normally fierce winds have been unusually gentle as leading teams make for the old gold mining settlement of Nome.
King took time early Tuesday to enjoy the scenery as his team moved under the moon in calm weather on the way to White Mountain.
"To lead the Iditarod under a full moon without feeling rushed, or looking over my shoulder, it was a wonderful evening," King said.
"I've picked the right team, the right places to take breaks, and the right places to make a push," he said. "It's been a great race."
King and Swingley, a 52-year-old musher from Lincoln, Mont., jockeyed for the lead during the third quarter of the world's longest sled dog race, but Swingley's team faded on Sunday as the two veteran mushers left the town of Unalakleet, the first race stop on the Bering Sea coast.
The Iditarod winner will earn $69,000 and receive a new pickup valued at almost $45,000. This year's top 30 finishers will split $795,000. Another $40,000 will be divided among the remaining arrivals to Nome.
Eleven mushers have scratched from the field. The race started March 5 in Willow after a ceremonial start the previous day in Anchorage.