NOME - Salem curled up beneath Nome's burled spruce arch, a ring of yellow roses around his neck.
Then, in the bright lights of the Iditarod winner's circle, the star sled dog fell asleep.
"He is one of the most incredible dogs I've ever had the privilege of knowing," said musher Jeff King, whose headlamp was the first to pierce the darkness in the old gold-rush town early Wednesday, giving him his fourth Iditarod championship.
To hear King tell the story, Salem's naptime was well-earned.
Last week, while King was jockeying for first with four-time champ Doug Swingley, his team hit a snow drift.
The bump sent King tumbling and unhooked one of his dogs. While King ran after it, the rest of his team disappeared down the Iditarod Trail, somewhere between the Yukon River village of Kaltag and the town of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast - hundreds of miles from Nome.
King said he was ready to cry as he trudged onward, calling through the wind for Salem. Sled dogs are enthusiastic runners, known for abandoning fallen mushers in their eagerness to push ahead.
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But King said Salem helped stop the runaway team, which he spotted a few minutes later in the blowing snow.
The musher arrived at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race under a full moon and in first place. Hundreds of bundled-up spectators sent puffs of breath into the chill air as they cheered King along Nome's main street.
King won his fourth Iditarod with what he called his best-ever sled dog team, completing the annual 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome in nine days, 11 hours and 11 minutes.
"They're young, but they're veterans and they're real well matched," said King, who arrived at 1:11 a.m. in the finish chute. "It's a wonderful feeling to have them come in this strong."
King, competing in his 17th Iditarod, pulled into Nome more than three hours ahead of runner-up Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont.
King, of Denali, joined Swingley, Martin Buser and Susan Butcher as four-time winners.
"It's a very short list of some very talented people," King said. "The odds are good one of us will get five."
Rick Swenson, 55, of Two Rivers, who is also running this year's race, is the Iditarod's only five-time winner.
At 50, King is the oldest musher to win the world's longest sled dog race. He previously won the race in 1993, '96 and '98.
"It seemed like I was due. It's really good to be here again," King said.
For winning the Iditarod, King received $69,000 and a new truck. The top 30 finishers split a pot of $795,000. Another $40,000 will be divided between remaining arrivals to Nome.
King and Swingley traded the lead a few times during the third quarter of the Iditarod, but Swingley's team faded on Sunday as the two veteran mushers left the wind-whipped town of Unalakleet, the first race stop on the Bering Sea coast.
Swingley's bold push to catch King on the Yukon River likely sapped the energy of his team. King said he suspected Swingley's dogs might be slowing down as the teams came off the Yukon River at Kaltag, about 350 miles from Nome.
The Iditarod passes through 24 checkpoints in villages and wilderness cabins strung along the trail, which meanders over two steep mountain ranges, the wide, windy Yukon River, and a final stretch up the iced-in Bering Sea coast.
Deep, soft snow covered much of this year's trail, which has been bare ground in many spots in recent years. Windblown snow on the Yukon nearly obscured the trail in some places, discouraging even the snowmobile drivers who break trail ahead of the dog teams.
But winds were unusually light for front-runners navigating the Bering Sea coast, with the exception of ripping gusts near Unalakleet. Temperatures dipped to minus 45 degrees at the halfway checkpoint of Cripple.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who finished ninth last year, arrived third in Nome at 5:23 a.m., followed by cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe, 51, of Willow, who has raced 23 times and has 13 top-10 finishes. John Baker of Kotzebue arrived fifth. Bjornar Andersen of Norway, nephew of last year's champion, Robert Sorlie, arrived sixth.
Sorlie, a two-time champ who plans to return to the race next year, has been following his nephew along the trail and tucking away information about his competitors' strategies.
"I'm watching," he said. "I'm learning."
Sorlie, also of Norway, was barred by race rules from coaching his nephew along the trail.
Eighty-three mushers started this year's race and 11 have scratched so far. Most mushers were still working their way up the trail as of Wednesday and will trickle into town through early next week. The farthest back was rookie Ben Valks of Norway, who was in the Yukon River checkpoint of Galena, about 450 miles from Nome.
Rookie Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Ore., could be the first legally blind musher to finish. Scdoris, 21, who scratched last year in her first attempt, was in 58th place on Wednesday near Unalakleet, about 260 miles from the finish. Tim Osmar, a top-20 finisher from last year, is guiding her along the trail.
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