Gebhardt's Iditarod marked by highs, lows

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has featured extreme highs and lows for Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt thus far.

After leading the race Friday and winning the "First Musher to the Yukon Award" for being the first musher to Anvik, Gebhardt took his 24-hour layover and mushed on to Grayling late Saturday morning. There he reported that one of his dogs — a 3-year-old named Rita — had died about a half hour out of Anvik.

Gebhardt, who won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award in 1998, was cleared to continue the race with 15 dogs, Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said, adding that the musher was ''devastated'' by the loss. Gebhardt was running in eighth place as of Saturday evening.

A necropsy will be performed to attempt to determine the cause of death — the first in this year's race.

When reached by phone early Friday morning in Anvik during his 24-hour layover, Gebhardt gave no indication that anything was wrong with his team.

"The dogs are doing great," he said. "I still have all 16 here. I've never had all my dogs this far into the race."

Gebhardt's venerable 8-year-old husky "Red Dog" has led large portions of the race, but the musher said the rest of his team — the bulk of which are 2- to 3-year-olds — also were doing great.

"They're all eating good and will be well-rested when I leave," he said.

When he was interviewed, Gebhardt was happy after earning the seven-course feast given as part of the "First Musher to the Yukon Award."

Gebhardt had arrived in the picturesque village of Anvik just after 7 a.m. Friday and was greeted by the ringing church bell — a signal to the town the first musher arrived.

"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 snowmachine was responsible for the trench, but rather than pointing fingers he focused on compensating for the obstacles.

Gebhardt explained that 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 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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