ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Imagine standing on a sled behind a team of 16 dogs, traveling mile after desolate mile in the Alaska wilderness without any sign of other human life.
All of a sudden, lights shine off in the distance, the first village to come into view in a very long time.
Whether it’s a single cabin or a booming village of several hundred people, for mushers on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the villages are not only checkpoints to eat, rest and recharge, but a chance to interact with someone other than their dogs.
“There are no checkpoints that I dislike,” said defending champion Dallas Seavey. “Every time you come around the corner and see the lights of a checkpoint approaching, it’s a great sight.”
Four-time champion Martin Buser rested at the checkpoint in Rohn after a blistering fast 170-mile run that had put him hours ahead of the other teams.
Buser reached Rohn Monday and took his mandatory 24-hour rest there, watching other mushers arrive and leave, before he departed at 12:03 p.m. Tuesday.
Buser’s layover put Aaron Burmeister in the lead Tuesday. He was the first in and out of the Nikolai checkpoint 75 miles past Rohn, arriving at 8:11 a.m. and departing a little more than four hours later. Running second was last year’s Iditarod runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, who left Nikolai at 1:13 p.m. Tuesday.
There are 26 checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, and for Zirkle, the reception that teams receive are truly Alaska events: Villagers welcome the dogs first.
There are two ghost towns that serve as checkpoints along the trail, including the race’s namesake, the former mining village of Iditarod, which once boasted a population of 10,000 people.
The ghost towns fill up with support staff during the race, but are empty the rest of the year.
But other villages are just like small towns in the Lower 48.
The checkpoints serve a purpose. Veterinarians staff the checkpoints to examine the dogs, and race officials make sure the mushers are fit to continue.
Mushers are required to take three mandatory rest periods during the race. They take one 24-hour layover any time during the race. They must take one eight-hour rest at a checkpoint along the Yukon River, and the other eight-hour rest at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.