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After Punishing Trail, Mushers Rest at Race’s Namesake: the ‘Ghost Town’ of Iditarod

Halfway into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, top mushers have 400 miles behind them and are gearing up for the push through the emptiest parts of trail.

KNOM’s Ben Matheson has more as race leaders leapfrog each other and prepare to make their move.

After a marathon day on the trail, Aliy Zirkle’s team pulled into ghost town checkpoint of Iditarod just before 2 a.m. Thursday.

(See a photo gallery from the Iditarod checkpoint, below.)

For being the first into Iditarod, Zirkle wins the Dorthy Page Halfway award and the prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets. But she had to be the first to survive a trail that transitioned from soft snow to frozen bumpy ground.

“Yeah, those tussocks are hardcore, you shouldn’t even mush a sled over them.”

Zirkle’s jarring trip was on a day so warm that she fed her dogs water from snow that melted from the rooftop of a shelter cabin. Zirkle explained her decision to be the first musher to travel this far before her break.

“I gotta go; I have to go see: there’s supposedly a trail from Ophir to Iditarod. If there’s a trail, I need to go see if I can do it, see if I can make a move. Seems like no one else wanted to try that?”

The race picture is beginning to come into view as teams surge out of their 24-hour breaks in Takotna and Ophir. Zirkle is racing at the front, but her competition began to pass her Thursday afternoon while she finished her mandatory rest.

Just after noon Thursday, Nic Petit’s team flew into the Iditarod checkpoint with dogs that wanted to run more. He explained his reason for heading further up the trail: “because they look (like) wild beasts.”

He grabbed a bale of straw and drove his well-rested team a few miles further.

Good rest is the priority for teams looking to maintain speed through the midsection of the race. Other top mushers took their 24-hour rest on Wednesday afternoon at the Ophir checkpoint. A few hours into his 24-hour break, veteran Aaron Burmeister woke from a nap and cooked a meal. The soft trails and warm temperatures have required a big effort from the whole team.

“There’s been a lot of work. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the dogs. My legs are sore, my body is sore, I don’t do much ski poling, but I’ve been doing a lot of pushing and pumping and running.”

As mushers head out of checkpoints with freshly rested teams, the race is on now to reach the flat highway of the Yukon River.

Image at top: The remote Iditarod checkpoint on the Iditarod River. Photo: Ben Matheson, KNOM.

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