Rainy Pass, AK - Mushers have known since the start that this year’s race is likely to be fast, but many seemed surprised that the blistering pace would pick up so early. Mushers typically plan to maintain strong teams and take their time along the first third of the trail.
Martin Buser surprised nearly everyone when he arrived in Rainy Pass in the early hours of Monday morning. At the restart in Willow Sunday, the four time champion said he was happy to leave the chute first. “For the rest of the filed I would suspect that’s a lot of pressure," he smiled, "but I rather enjoy it. I think that’s a perfect schedule for me.” Buser has three decades of Iditarod racing under his belt. It may have been his plan all along to set a fast pace. In Willow, he said he was more prepared than he’s ever been. “I should get into the race with a sled that’s set up, a team that’s trained up and equipment that’s kind of fine-tuned.”
Despite 29 previous, Buser’s race has other experienced mushers scratching their heads. “Are you kidding me? 20 hours off the starting line?" exclaims veteran Lance Mackey. "You gotta be an idiot, but that’s just my opinion.” Mackey moved quickly through Rainy pass, slicing open drop bags as he talked. As he rearranged his cooker, he admitted to at least one major mistake in his own race so far. “I thought I was gonna get in here and have a sixth of my team missing. Apparently, it was first time switching out leaders and I just had a little mishap.” Jake Berkowitz arrived just behind Mackey. Berkowitz helped the four-time champion catch his loose dog. But it didn’t faze Mackey, who took off down the trail after a short chat with a veterinarian. He doesn’t plan to spend much time in any checkpoint this year. “I’m blowing through everywhere!” He called as his team took off. They struggled to get lined out as they trotted across a frozen lake. Spectators and a number of parked bush planes had dogs veering left and right past the lodge. Soft, deep snow had Mackey stumbling around as he reoriented his leaders.
Mike Williams, Junior finished in eighth place last year. The Akiak musher says a soft trailed changed his plan as he made his way for Rainy Pass. “The trail was pretty choppy going into Finger Lake and I knew with not as many dogs teams going through, the trail would be better so I decided to come here,” he says. As a bush plane took off behind him, Williams, Junior was debating about how to set up his run through the infamous Dalzell Gorge, to Rohn and on into Nickolai. He says the punchy trail hasn’t affected his dogs. “They’re handling it really good," he nods. "They’re doing better than I thought they would.”
Many mushers spent the afternoon waiting out the heat of the day. Pete Kaiser, a three time finisher from Bethel says he won’t be looking to change anything up until after the first third of the trail is behind him.
“Maybe later in the race," he says. "There will be something different that I do but up until the next few runs, it’s pretty similar to last year.”
Dog care is crucial in the early part of the race. Ken Anderson had just doled out snacks to his team as Defending champion Dallas Seavey pulled into the yard for some rest nearby. But the veteran from Fox barely looked up. Right now, his eyes are on his own dogs. “To me, I could be racing against no one. To me it’s just getting those dogs to Nome as fast as I can and that’s kind of boring," he laughs. "But it does me no good to key off what other people are doing until the end where maybe you might push a little harder than you otherwise would want to,” he says.
Just across the dog yard, a small woman, clad in pink, was organizing dog booties. DeeDee Jonrowe started the Iditarod for the 31st time this year. She knows better than to think of racing for real before she completes her mandatory 24 hour layover. “This early in the race, I really just need to run what I’ve trained my dogs to do," says Jonrowe. "If I start chasing other people’s races, I’ll be just patching other things back together later.”
Mushers starting trickling out of the Rainy Pass dog yard late in the afternoon. Many of them say they’d like to get healthy, happy dogs to Nickolai, roughly 250 miles into the race. That’s where they’ll start to look around. With as so teams vying for a top ten finish, it’s too early to tell how things might shake out.