Top Iditarod teams reach Nikolai

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

NIKOLAI, Alaska (AP) -- Top teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race left the Alaska Range behind and spent much of Tuesday resting in the afternoon sunshine in this Kuskokwim River village.

DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow was first to reach Nikolai, arriving at 7:54 a.m. She traveled under a starry sky lit with a half moon through a 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. Mushers have had problems in the area in the past, sometimes smashing into stumps and damaging sleds beyond repair. Sparse snowfall through the area can make for a bumpy ride. But mushers describe conditions this year as good.

''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.''

Three-time champion Jeff King described the trail as fast and said he carried two dogs of his 16 dogs in his sled in an effort to slow the team down.

''There are a lot of situations where you don't need all 16 dogs,'' King said.

Linwood Fiedler of Willow was second into Nikolai, arriving at 9:19 a.m. By midafternoon, a dozen mushers had reached the village. Ramy Brooks of Healy was third into Nikolai arriving at 11 a.m.; John Baker of Kotzebue followed at 11:42 a.m. and King of Denali Park was fifth at 11:49 a.m.

Rounding out the top ten were Jon Little of Kasilof; Jerry Riley of Nenana; Charlie Boulding of Manley; Sonny King of Spartanburg, S.C.; and Mitch Seavey of Seward.

Meanwhile, defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., 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.

In Nikolai, the dog teams were bedded down on straw outside the village school. Classes were canceled for much of the week and the students shyly approached mushers for autographs.

Many mushers are resting their dogs during the heat of the day.

While temperatures climbed into the single digits in the warm sunshine, the dogs prefer the cooled nighttime air. Temperatures dipped into the 20s below zero on the trail into Nikolai early Tuesday morning.

A winner is expected to cross the finish line in Nome sometime Tuesday. But with unusually good trail conditions, some mushers say, 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 a $550,000 purse.

Sixty-two of the 64 teams that began the race remain on the trail. Burt Bomhoff of Chugiak and Perry Solomonson of Plain, Wash. scratched.

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