- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

KOYUK, ALASKA (AP) - Lance Mackey’s fellow mushers may think he has the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race all but sewn up this year, but not Mackey _ not after driving his dog team into brutally cold winds and across frozen sea ice to get to the Koyuk checkpoint.

“In weather like this, anything can happen,” Mackey said Monday evening as he prepared to leave the checkpoint. “It’s crazy out there.”

From Koyuk, teams follow the coast, stopping at several checkpoints as they head toward Nome and the finish line.

Mackey arrived in this Inupiat Eskimo village of about 350 residents one minute before noon on Monday with a roughly five-hour lead over Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who had a nearly 2 1/2-hour lead over a pack of hopefuls, including 2004 winner Mitch Seavey and four-time champion Jeff King.

Aaron Burmeister, who in 11 Iditarods has never finished in the top 10, was in third place, leaving the checkpoint in Shaktoolik six minutes ahead of Seavey and about a half-hour in front of King and John Baker.

With Nome and the finish line 171 miles away, Mackey _ the 2007 and 2008 winner _ looked to be headed toward a third straight Iditarod victory, something that even his fiercest competitors were beginning to acknowledge Monday.

When King, who came in second to Mackey last year, was asked if he can catch him before Nome, he said, “We’re having a hell of a time keeping up with him never mind catching him.”

But, King said, “I am not congratulating him, yet.”

King said he was having a really good run from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik, a distance of 42 miles, when things turned ugly the last 15 miles. The winds picked up, blowing 40 miles per hour right in the faces of the dogs.

“If that is anything I’m about to head into, it will be a long day,” King said as he steered his team back onto the frozen expanse of sea ice.

Sixty-seven teams began the race nine days ago in Willow north of Anchorage. Six mushers have either scratched or been withdrawn.

It was the wind, not the cold, that was raising the most concern among the mushers. That’s because dog teams do not like heading straight into a strong wind, never mind winds of 40 mph that, combined with wind chill, were driving temperatures to 40 below or more and creating a ground blizzard on the sea ice.

Schnuelle said after arriving in Koyuk that a 5-year-old dog in his team called Finn saved the day. Two of his other lead dogs, when faced with the bitter wind, sat down and wouldn’t go forward.

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

“He was the only dog willing to go straight into that wind,” said Schnuelle, who described the conditions as “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.

Even John Baker, a musher from Kotzebue accustomed to Arctic cold, said in conditions as brutal as these, no one has an advantage. Cold, strong winds work the same way on dogs, draining them of energy, no matter who is driving the sled, he said.

“I really don’t think that you get an advantage that easy over someone like Jeff,” Baker said, as he followed King out of the Shaktoolik checkpoint. Baker has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 13 Iditarods but finished 23rd last year. He said he was having a better run this year, despite the weather.

Canadian Hans Gatt, a three-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race _ considered by many to be a tougher race than the Iditarod because the weather is often colder and the checkpoints are farther apart _ said mushers can’t prepare their teams for these conditions.

They don’t even train in these conditions, Gatt said, as he put new booties on his dogs and prepared to leave Shaktoolik.

“They don’t want to go in this stuff,” Gatt said. “You just hope for the best.”

Schnuelle, who won the Quest this year, said if he’d known how bad it was he would have waited before leaving Shaktoolik.

“Once I hit the ice, it was ‘Oh my God,’” he said. “My leaders sat down on me.”

Leeann Sookiayak, who has lived all her 20 years in Shaktoolik, said the weather was Mother Nature doing her thing.

“She gets pretty angry and she blows snow,” she said as she was waiting for musher Aliy Zirkle, who was in 13th place, to arrive.

Sookiayak said Zirkle is her favorite musher because every year when the Iditarod comes though she gives her wrist warmers as a present.

____

On the Net:

https://www.iditarod.com

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