Village treats mushers like royalty

Defending champion Swingley grabs lead as many mushers opt for mandatory layovers.

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

TAKOTNA -- Sonny King puts the brakes on race strategy when it comes to pecan pie and spending time with friends he's made driving his team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

King knows if he takes his mandatory 24 hour layover in this Alaska village of about 50 people, he'll get home-baked food, hugs from friends and memories enough to warm his trip through the chilly Interior and across miles of Bering Sea ice as he drives toward Nome.

''It is amazing how many friends I immediately make,'' King said Wednesday, as he sat down to a meal in the community hall and was handed his very own pecan pie made with nuts sent from his home state of South Carolina.

King's friendship with Jan and Dean Newton, who take it on themselves to organize the mushers' feed, goes back several years. Now, when many of the top mushers are pushing on, he stays and relaxes.

He was joined by a dozen other mushers, including frontrunner Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, Ramy Brooks of Healy and Vern Halter of Willow.

''I do it here because I wouldn't think about doing it anywhere else, unless I was dying,'' King said, soon after arriving in Takotna, 500 miles from Anchorage. Temperatures hovered around zero early Wednesday.

King, who is running his third Iditarod and likes to call himself an ''experienced rookie,'' remembers his first race in 1997 when he lost more than 20 pounds on the trail. By the time he drove his team into Takotna he was hungry and thirsty.

''When I got in here I was craving Coca Cola in a glass on ice,'' King said. Jan Newton looked around and found him just what he wanted.

''She's fabulous,'' he said.

As King bedded down his dogs on beds of straw and fed them after the 18-mile run from McGrath to Takotna, Newton was inside overseeing her daughter, Deborah Work of Caruthers, Calif., who made the pie.

Pecan pie wasn't always on the menu at the community hall. During one visit, King asked why they had so many different kinds of pies but not his favorite.

''They said, 'We don't have pecans,''' he said. So now he sends them a case of pecans each year from his home in Spartanburg, S.C.

''Needless to say, I get the whole pie,'' said the 53-year-old veterinarian.

Mushers have more than pecan pie to choose from. This year's menu includes pancake and egg breakfasts, steaks, moose stew, crab legs, chili, hamburgers and lots of homemade pies. If pecan pie isn't the thing, mushers can choose from banana cream, apple, cherry, blueberry, chocolate and coconut.

Defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., was the first musher through Takotna, arriving at 2:17 a.m. Alaska time, and staying nearly six hours, long enough to have two big breakfasts and a long nap. Three-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser and five-time winner Rick Swenson came through a short time later. Neither stayed for food.

''The mushers can eat anything they want, all they want and as often as they want,'' said Nell Huffman, who helps organize the feed. For those who can't stay, they are sent off with a bag lunch.

That wasn't good enough for Lynda Plettner one year. The Wasilla musher, who this year is running her eighth Iditarod, called ahead to order her steak, medium-rare, to go, Jan Newton said.

She doesn't mind special orders.

''Year after year they're like old friends,'' she said.

Vern Halter of Willow, who finished third in last year's Iditarod, was just finishing off a bowl of moose stew when Jan Newton called him from the kitchen.

''Did you get your plate?'' she yelled.

''I'll take that,'' Halter said as a cheeseburger and potato salad were placed in front of him.

Brooks, suffering from a bad cold, was bent over his second breakfast after a coughing fit woke him from a two-hour nap.

''What time did Buser and Swenson go through?'' he asked the diner next to him.

Brooks said the cold forced him to break in Takotna instead of pushing on. He was hoping some medication from the doctor would do the trick.

''The dogs are doing way better than I am,'' he said. ''That's the important thing.''

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