Five-time champion Rick Swenson wasted no time moving to the front of the pack Monday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Swenson was the first musher to reach the Rainy Pass checkpoint, which is tucked deep in the Alaska Range. He arrived at 8:14 a.m. AST, 1-1/2 hours ahead of his nearest competitor, Charlie Boulding of Manley, Alaska. Vern Halter of Willow arrived 4 minutes after Boulding.
With clear skies and temperatures in the 20s, the dog teams rested on beds of straw on frozen Puntilla Lake, surrounded by spectacular views of craggy, snow-covered peaks.
Mitch Seavey of Sterling arrived in fourth place at 10:15 a.m. Two-time champion Jeff King reached the checkpoint at 10:26 a.m. in fifth place. Mike Nosko of Wasilla arrived at 11:20 a.m. in sixth place and rookie Shawn Sidelinger of Wasilla was in seventh place, arriving at 11:41 a.m.
Mushers were pleased with snow conditions on the trail.
“I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the trail,” said Linwood Fiedler of Willow, the first to leave the Finger Lake checkpoint for the 30-mile run to Rainy Pass. “It was a sprint trail as far as I was concerned.”
Sixty-three teams - including four past champions - are entered in this year’s race, as well as 19 rookies and mushers from five foreign countries.
Swenson added interest to the 26th Iditarod by re-entering after being withdrawn in 1996 when a dog in his team, Ariel, died along the trail. He’s dedicated this race to the dog.
Swenson, who has never finished lower than 10th in 20 Iditarods, bitterly protested, and the decision was overturned last year. But he sat out 1997 anyway.