PUNTILLA LAKE — Dozens of fans, plus a few race officials and reporters, greeted Iditarod mushers as they raced into the checkpoint at Rainy Pass Lodge on Monday afternoon, 188 miles into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Tourists, some sporting zoom lenses and southern accents, gawked as they watched teams arrive on the frozen lake under a warm sun.
Veteran Ryan Redington said he surprised himself by pulling into Rainy Pass in first place on Monday morning. He said his dogs had extra motivation for getting there early.
“We chased a moose for about three-quarters of a mile,” he said. “The dogs really liked that earlier.”
Redington said he drew a gun he was carrying for that purpose but didn’t have to fire.
Despite his lead, the Knik-based musher wasn’t in any hurry to leave. His dogs rested on straw set out in a neat line next to several other teams who came after him.
Redington, wearing a neon green jacket that matched his sled bag, ambled to a hole in the lake to draw water in a bucket that he would heat up to prepare the dogs’ next meal.
“Chicken and beaver and horse,” he said.
Redington chatted with Aniak musher Richie Diehl, who brushed his teeth in the dog yard as he enjoyed the views of mountains on either side of him.
Nearby, Interior Alaska musher Dan Kaduce heated water in a large aluminum cook stove for his team. He said that for him, it wasn’t too hard of a decision to make to stop at the checkpoint.
“They have a great mushers’ cabin where you can go and dry some gear out and take a little nap away from it all,” he said.
Kaduce had only good things to say about the trail into the Rainy Pass checkpoint, which includes the Happy River Steps — an often-dreaded series of switchbacks.
“It was super good trail,” he said. “They warned us it might not be, and it was really nice.”
He said that arriving here when he did — in the late morning — meant he could rest his team through the warmest part of the day, when dogs have the most trouble.
Kaduce said he enjoyed the crowds of tourists who gathered to watch, though some mushers like Brent Sass preferred the solitude of a camp out on the trail.
“We’re blowing right through,” he told the checkpoint official when he arrived.
After grabbing some bags shipped out before the start — plus a bundle of straw for his dogs — Sass took off across the lake.
Mitch Seavey arrived in the early afternoon and immediately asked the checkpoint official about his competition.
“Who’s gone on?” he said, and chided the official for not writing down his son Dallas’s departure time on the sheet she showed him.
The elder Seavey, a three-time winner, opted to stay at the checkpoint for a few hours but declined to answer reporter questions.
By Tuesday afternoon, he was resting in the village of Nikolai at mile 263 while his son Dallas had pressed on down the trail. Sass is currently in the lead.