KOYUK - Lance Mackey remained in the driver's seat Monday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, arriving first in the village of Koyuk while teams behind him headed their dog teams across the frozen sea ice and into brutally cold winds.
Mackey arrived in this Inupiat Eskimo village of about 350 residents one minute before noon on Monday with about a five-hour lead over Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle who had a nearly 2 ½-hour lead over a pack of hopefuls, including 2004 winner Mitch Seavey and four-time champion Jeff King.
Aaron Burmeister, who in 11 Iditarods has never finished in the top 10, was in third place, leaving the checkpoint in Shaktoolik six minutes ahead of Seavey and about a half-hour in front of King and John Baker.
With Nome and the finish line 171 miles away, Mackey - the 2007 and 2008 winner - looked to be headed toward a third Iditarod victory, something that even his fiercest competitors were beginning to acknowledge Monday.
When King, who came in second to Mackey last year, was asked if he can catch him before Nome, he said, "We're having a hell of a time keeping up with him nevermind catching him."
But, King said, "I am not congratulating him, yet."
King said he was having a really good run from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik, a distance of 42 miles, when things turned ugly the last 15 miles. The winds picked up, blowing 40 miles per hour right in the faces of the dogs.
"If that is anything I'm about to head into, it will be a long day," King said as he steered his team back onto the frozen expanse of sea ice.
Sixty-seven teams began the race nine days ago in Willow north of Anchorage. Six mushers have either scratched or been withdrawn.
It was the wind, not the cold, that was raising the most concern among the mushers. That's because dog teams do not like heading straight into a strong wind, nevermind winds of 40 mph that with wind chill were driving temperatures to 40 below or more and creating a ground blizzard on the sea ice.
Even John Baker, a musher from Kotzebue accustomed to Arctic cold, said in conditions as brutal as these, no one has an advantage. Cold, strong winds work the same way on dogs, draining them of energy, no matter who is driving the sled, he said.
"I really don't think that you get an advantage that easy over someone like Jeff," Baker said, as he followed King out of the checkpoint. Baker has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 13 Iditarods but finished 23rd last year. He said he was having a better run this year, despite the weather.
Canadian Hans Gatt, a three-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race - considered by many to be a tougher race than the Iditarod because the weather is often colder and the checkpoints are farther apart - said mushers can't prepare their teams for these conditions.
They don't even train in these conditions, Gatt said, as he put new booties on his dogs and prepared to leave Shaktoolik.
"They don't want to go in this stuff," Gatt said. "You just hope for the best."
Leeann Sookiayak, who has lived all her 20 years in Shaktoolik, said the weather was Mother Nature doing her thing.
"She gets pretty angry and she blows snow," she said as she was waiting for musher Aliy Zirkle, who was in 13th place, to arrive.