Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt and his team of 16 hard-charging huskies continue to lead this year's Iditarod despite innumerable obstacles and adversities.
"I did it for the meal," Gebhardt said by phone early Friday morning from Anvik, 624 miles from Anchorage and 507 miles from Nome.
The meal he was referring to is a seven-course feast given as part of the "First Musher to the Yukon Award."
Gebhardt had arrived in the picturesque village just after 7 a.m. and was greeted by the ringing church bell a signal to the town the first musher arrived.
This is no tiny task since although weather has been downright balmy during this year's race, this weather pattern has caused trail conditions to be some of the worst on record.
"The trail has been horrendous," Gebhardt said. "The (Dalzell) gorge was the worst I've ever seen it. I must of tipped 100 times.
"Then after Rohn there was 30 miles of exposed dirt and gravel. I hit a stump and broke my sled. A lot of people did.
"The trail from Shageluk to here (Anvik) had nothing good," he added.
Gebhardt said in addition to the usual hazards that line the 25 miles of trail between the two checkpoints, this year there was an additional obstacle.
"There was a 15-inch wide, 6-inch deep trough in the center of the trail from the paddle track of a snowmachine," Gebhardt said.
He speculated that one of the tour groups following the race by snow machine was responsible for the trench, but rather than pointing fingers he focused on compensating for the obstacles.
Gebhardt explained rather than attaching the gangline to the sled in a manner that allows the dog's pulling power to be equally distributed on the right and left side, he hooked the line to one runner so the sled would track sideways.
"It kept me from falling in the trough, but it handled like crap going around trees," he said.
Gebhardt rode like that to Anvik, where shortly after arriving and attending to his dogs, the Kasilof musher received his well-earned meal provided courtesy of the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage.
Executive Chef, Stephen England prepared a banquet that consisted of Alaska king crab thermidor, smoked tomatoes with Balsamic vinaigrette, braised musk ox and shitake mushroom stew, key lime sorbet, buffalo tenderloin with Madeira peppercorn sauce, smoked salmon Napoleon and a fiery snowball for dessert.
In addition to the meal, the Kasilof musher received an "after dinner mint" of $3,500 crisp $1 bills presented by Millennium's food and beverage manager Brooke McGrath.
Gebhardt will take his mandatory 24-hour rest period in Anvik before heading up the Yukon River.
"I don't expect to see anybody until noon," he said referring to Robert Sorlie, Martin Buser, Aliy Zirkle, and Ramy Brooks, the four other contenders in the top five who were still two checkpoints behind in Iditarod on their 24-hour rests.
Strategically, pushing to Anvik without shutting the dogs down for a 24-hour rest is a risky move, but not one that hasn't ever paid dividends. Iditarod winners Buser and Rick Swenson have both in the past departed from accepted strategy and pushed past Shageluk to rest in Anvik.
Gebhardt said he wouldn't be surprised when eventually a few mushers pass him while he's resting, but he's hoping to make up the time to eventually finish in the top 10 his goal for this race.
"The dogs are doing great. "I still have all 16 here. I've never had all my dogs this far into the race," he said.
His venerable 8 -year old husky "Red Dog" has led large portions of the race, but the rest of his team the bulk of which are 2 to 3 year olds are also faring better than expected.
"They're all eating good and will be well rested when I leave. Now it's just up to me to figure out how not to fall too far behind."
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