Rick Swenson silenced the skeptics Tuesday, arriving in first place at this Kuskokwim River village after mushing through tussocks and tree stumps of the Farewell burn - the toughest stretch of the 1,100-mile race to Nome.
Veterans declared the 93-mile route from Rohn to Nikolai, the longest run between checkpoints, the roughest in years. Swenson, running his first Iditarod since he was withdrawn in 1996 for a dog death, said his dogs showed no sign of wanting to go home.
Nikolai, the first Alaska Native village reached by Iditarod mushers, is 265 miles into the race. From here the trail mostly follows the Kuskokwim River to McGrath, 48 miles away.
Charred trees stumps cover Farewell burn after wildfire in 1977 scorched more than 360,000 acres. Buffalo that can spook teams roam the burn, and wind can whisk away trail markers.
“We got wrapped around a couple of trees,” said DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow. “It was hard to distinguish where the trail was. The trail’s as rough as I’ve ever seen it.”
There were no scratches among the 63 teams that began the race Sunday, the first time in recent memory that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race passed its third day without dropouts.
By early evening, nine of 24 teams had departed Nikolai. Remaining 39 teams continued working their way along the trail, some as far back as Rainy Pass about 125 miles into the race.
Swenson arrived at Nikolai at 8:29 a.m. followed about 45 minutes later by Jonrowe of Willow, and Linwood Fiedler of Willow and three-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake, both arriving at 9:23 a.m.
Departing Nikolai for McGrath, in order, were Swenson, Buser, King and Swingley. Swenson departed at 4:56 p.m. followed within 6 minutes by the other three teams.
Mitch Seavey of Sterling was first to depart Nikolai at 1:28 p.m. arriving first at McGrath 5 hours later.
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