Mackey leads Iditarod as teams turn for Nome

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WHITE MOUNTAIN - Lance Mackey remained in the lead Tuesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as his team turned in the direction of Nome - and the end of the 1,100-mile trail - but it was Mother Nature that controlled the race.

Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker were still hours behind Mackey, but ahead of a storm that trapped other mushers farther back on the trail.

Thirteen mushers, including four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, were holed up at the checkpoint in Shaktoolik, stopped by 40 mile-per-hour winds and wind chill driving temperatures to more than 50 below. Temperatures were expected to be even colder Tuesday night.

Mushers Aaron Burmeister and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey spent the night in a shelter cabin but were back on the trail Tuesday afternoon, moving with another pod of mushers toward the Koyuk checkpoint, 48 miles away from Shaktoolik.

Mackey, who described the run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk as "brutal," arrived at the checkpoint in Golovin, less than 100 miles from the finish line in Nome, and continued on his way Tuesday, barely stopping in his old hometown where his father, Dick Mackey, winner of the 1978 Iditarod, once managed the village fish cooperative.

"Welcome home, Lance," several in the crowd yelled, as Mackey reached the town of about 160 people who live on an exposed spit of land.

Mackey stopped his team briefly to put Larry, the 9-year-old dog that led him into Nome last year, in lead position.

When asked if he was going to win, Mackey said "hope so," as he gave another little wave and jumped back on his sled.

"Come on Larry," he said, as the team began moving again and made a right turn on the trail leading toward the White Mountain checkpoint, just 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.

Sixty-seven teams began the race more than a week ago in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. Nine teams have either scratched or been withdrawn.

Teams are required to take an eight-hour break in White Mountain before the sprint to the finish. The winner is expected in Nome sometime Wednesday.

Schnuelle was in second place Tuesday having arrived at the Elim checkpoint just ahead of Baker. Both of the veteran mushers said the cold and wind leaving Shaktoolik was some of the worst weather they had ever experienced on any trail.

Schnuelle said the 48-mile run Tuesday from Koyuk to Elim was a dream compared to what he had just gone through with his dog team the day before. At times the wind was blowing so hard out of Shaktoolik that his dog team was blown sideways, he said.

After two of his lead dogs sat down on him, he put an ornery dog named Finn into lead to get them to the next checkpoint.

"I sweet talked him more than I've ever sweet talked a dog," Schnuelle said.

As for the other 15 mushers getting stuck either in Shaktoolik or the shelter cabin, he said, "I love it."

"Sometimes you have to take a risk and I hope it pays off. It does look that way," Schnuelle said.

He said at this point he doesn't care if he comes in second or third. He won't be battling Baker for position. But he also won't let the ones who stayed behind get in front of him now, he said.

"I will stay here as long as I can without being caught from behind," Schnuelle said, as he placed large bales of straw around his dog team to act as a windbreak in the checkpoint.

"First we had snow and wind. Now we have wind and wind," he said.

Baker said he left Shaktoolik just behind King at about noon Monday. The two decided to travel together out of concerns for each others' safety. But he said they were within a mile of the shelter cabin when "there was a great roar of wind and the sled jerked and he (Jeff) was gone."

Baker said he hated to see King go.

"I was thinking I wanted to turn back too," he said.

But, he didn't, and arrived in Elim in third place.

Baker, who comes from Kotzebue on the Bering Sea coast, said he trains his dogs for conditions just like those that arose this year in Shaktoolik.

The race was marred by the deaths of two more dogs. The immediate cause of death could not be determine for either dog and more tests will be conducted.

The dogs were on the team of rookie Lou Packer of Wasilla, who scratched after being found Monday 22 miles past the Iditarod checkpoint.

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