- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

WHITE MOUNTAIN, ALASKA (AP) - Lance Mackey rested his dogs Tuesday while nearing another Iditarod title, taking advantage of an unforgiving Bering Sea blizzard that kept mushers hours behind him waiting out the brutally cold wind.

Mackey, the two-time defending champion, gave his dogs 6 1/2 hours of rest at the Elim checkpoint, 123 miles from the Nome finish line before leaving the checkpoint at about 11 a.m. local time.

Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker were in second and third place, moving slowly on the trail to Elim. But they were about two hours from reaching the checkpoint when Mackey left.

Thirteen mushers, including four-time champion Jeff King, remained in the Shaktoolik checkpoint, about 100 miles from Elim, because of the harsh weather. Temperatures were about 4 below, but the wind made it feel as if it were 40 below.

King was among those who tried leaving the checkpoint only to get out on the sea ice, where a ground blizzard was blowing. They turned their teams around to head back to the safety of the checkpoint.

“The wind has just been fierce,” race spokesman Chas St. George said. “This whole race has kind of stopped. You have everybody hunkered down.”

Between the Shaktoolik and Koyuk checkpoints, there is a cabin where it appears 2004 champion Mitch Seavey and musher Aaron Burmeister have taken refuge.

Musher Hugh Neff has frostbite to his face, St. George said. The extent of it was not immediately clear, or if other mushers were similarly afflicted.

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 by searchers in a plane. A dog on musher Jeff Holt’s team died last week.

Sixty-seven teams began the 1,100-mile race nine days ago in Willow north of Anchorage. Nine mushers have scratched or been withdrawn.

As Mackey prepared to leave Koyuk on Monday night for the 58-mile trip to Elim, he told villagers at the checkpoint about how rough the stretch of trail had been for him and his dogs.

At Shaktoolik, he said put on every piece of cold weather gear he had available, making sure every inch of exposed skin was covered.

Mackey rarely wears a face mask, but he did this time and reached to find another. He called this the most demanding stretch of trail he had experienced so far in the race.

Schnuelle, who was second into Koyuk, said at that point he did not care where he finishes the race. What he cares about are his dogs, he said. He intended to rest them at least eight hours in Koyuk, but stayed in nearly 12 hours.

Dog teams do not like heading straight into a strong wind. Schnuelle said that after his team arrived in Koyuk, a 5-year-old dog in his team named Finn saved the day. Two of his other lead dogs, faced with the bitter wind, sat down and would not go forward.

Schnuelle put Finn in single lead at the head of the team and he got the job done, Schnuelle said.

“He was the only dog willing to go straight into that wind,” said Schnuelle. He called the conditions “tough, tough, tough.”

“If I had known it was as windy as it is, I never even would have tried to push it,” he said.

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