Iditarod front-runners reach Nikolai

Posted: Tuesday, March 05, 2002

NIKOLAI (AP) -- Top teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race left the Alaska Range behind and traveled through the night, reaching this Interior village on the Kuskokwim River early Tuesday.

DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow was the first to reach Nikolai, arriving at 7:54 a.m. Fellow Willow resident Linwood Fiedler followed at 9:19 a.m.

Under a starry sky lit with a half moon, the mushers traveled through a bumpy, barren landscape of tussocks and tree stumps. The area now known as the Farewell Burn was once a dense spruce forest that burned in a wildfire in the 1970s.

The snow cover in the area is generally sparse and mushers frequently damage their sleds on the bumpy stretch of trail. But mushers described conditions as good this year.

''It was fabulous. I didn't break my sled,'' Jonrowe said. ''This is the part of the trail that, historically, I've had difficulty with.''

Jonrowe's 14 dogs were bedded down on straw outside the village school. Classes were canceled for much of the week and the students shyly approached Jonrowe for autographs.

Meanwhile, defending champion Doug Swingley was far behind -- for a reason, he said as he pulled into the Rainy Pass checkpoint Tuesday morning. Swingley said he is retiring from the competition in this year's race, and considers this event a ''victory lap.'' Swingley, a four-time Iditarod champion, has won the race the last three years.

Before heading to Rainy Pass, Swingley spent nearly 17 hours resting at the Finger Lake checkpoint.

The move had race watchers wondering if it was a ploy to get top teams to let down their guard and their speed before he made a mad dash.

A winner is expected to cross the Nome finish line in about a week. But with unusually good trail conditions, some mushers think the race record of nine days, 58 minutes set by Swingley in 2000 could be broken.

The winner will take home the top prize of nearly $63,000 and a new pickup truck. The top 30 finishers will share in the $550,000 purse.

Sixty-two of the 64 teams that began the race Sunday remain on the trail.

Burt Bomhoff of Chugiak and Perry Solmonson of Plain, Wash., have scratched.

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