Iditarod mushers and their sled dog teams started pulling into a chilly Finger Lake checkpoint early Monday in temperatures that hovered between zero and 10 degrees.
Alaska Public Media’s Jeff Chen reports:
First in was Paige Drobny, of Cantwell, at 4:41 a.m.
Race officials met her in the dark at the checkpoint, which is roughly 125 miles into the 1,000-mile competition. She stopped for just three minutes before racing on to the next checkpoint: Rainy Pass.
Tim Johnson, a race official at the Finger Lake checkpoint, described Drobny’s 14-dog team as “solid.”
“She came in really looking great,” said Johnson, who’s the lead checker here. That means he’s the first person teams see when they pull in, and the mushers tell him whether they’re staying or going.
“It’s the first time she’s led coming into this checkpoint, which is an honor,” Johnson said of Drobny. “She used to check with us here back in the day, before she started mushing.”
Second into Finger Lake Monday was Richie Diehl and his 14-dog team at 4:53 a.m., just two minutes behind Drobny. He decided to stop and rest for just over three hours before racing on.
And third into Finger Lake was Brent Sass’ team, at 5 a.m. Sass said he’d been listening to music during the first leg of the race, specifically that of Alaska’s State Balladeer, James Varsos — best known as Hobo Jim. Varsos died of cancer last year. He was a staple of the Iditarod with his famous “Iditarod Trail Song”.
“Hobo Jim’s been playing non-stop,” Sass said while loading a bale of straw in his sled. “First Iditarod without having him around — it’s kind of sad for sure, but we got his music, so that’s really nice.”
Sass didn’t stop for long at Finger Lake. Within four minutes, he was off again.
The next three mushers into Finger Lake were Jessie Holmes, three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey and his son, five-time champ Dallas Seavey. They pulled in back-to-back-to-back at around 5:30 a.m. Holmes quickly dashed out of the checkpoint, while the Seaveys chose to stop for a few hours.
As more and more teams decided to stop and rest throughout the morning, a patch of snow on the lake ice in front of Winterlake Lodge quickly turned into a parking lot for sled dog teams. Mushers rotated between feeding their dogs, feeding themselves and resting.
Spectators were sparse for the first few mushers, but as the sun rose, guests at the lodge came down to watch the dog teams.
Johnson, the lead checker, said usually the first couple mushers are spaced out by an hour or two. Not this year.
“We got a group of about 20 mushers that are coming in basically back-to-back at the beginning,” he said.
By Monday afternoon, most mushers were either resting at Finger Lake or had forged ahead to Rainy Pass. The 30 miles between the two checkpoints are some of the most technical of the trail, including the dreaded Happy River steps.
Image at top: Sled dogs eat a snack of frozen meat at the Finger Lake checkpoint on Monday, March 7, 2022, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Finger Lake is about 125 miles into the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)