ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Hugh Neff was the first musher to arrive Friday at the Anvik checkpoint in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and was treated to a gourmet meal and awarded $3,500 in cash offered up in a gold mining pan.
Neff, who is competing in his seventh Iditarod, a 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, enjoyed the meal whipped up by chefs from a luxury Anchorage hotel, who flew in and prepared it on cook stoves in the Anvik community hall.
In the past, some mushers who received the “First Musher to the Yukon Award” have skipped the meal, preferring instead to keep to their race plan and not succumb to the temptation of rich food, wine and the adoration of race fans.
But others, like Neff, choose to enjoy Anvik and the meal at the checkpoint more than halfway through the race and 507 miles from Nome.
“It is one of those things that just kind of pumps you up because you know you are up front,” said Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler, who was first into Anvik in 2001 and finished second that year. “It is definitely a mental boost.”
Neff was leading the race Thursday but fell to third place when Sebastian Schnuelle and Hans Gatt decided not to stop in Anvik.
It appeared that Neff, John Baker, defending champion Lance Mackey, Ray Redington Jr., Martin Buser and Sonny Lindner were staying in Anvik to satisfy an eight-hour rest requirement for teams on the Yukon River.
By not stopping, Schnuelle and Gatt chose to postpone the requirement.
Neff and the other mushers heading out onto the frozen Yukon River will need a mental boost.
The trail on the river is dreaded by many Iditarod mushers because of its long, boring stretches of nothingness. Mushers have been known to be so sleep-deprived and so bored by this section of trail that they simply fall off their sleds. Some have been blown off by the winds that whip through the wide, frozen expanse.
“You know there is going to be wind out there because there always is. At the same time you just don’t know how much,” said race spokesman Chas St. George.
St. George said there are basically three sections to the Iditarod Trail. The first third requires mushers to go through the Alaska Range, going from 77 feet to 3,700 feet above sea level. The next is through the hilly Interior and onto the Yukon River. That is where dog teams that don’t like running into the wind can quit and where mushers fight mental battles to keep their heads in the race. The final third is a long sprint up the coast and to Nome.
That is where sudden blizzards creating whiteout conditions have blown away more than a few mushers’ dreams of winning the Iditarod. In 2009, Mackey got his team to go in a blizzard and into the wind whipping across the sea ice of Norton Sound, but musher Jeff King, another four-time winner who retired after last year’s race, returned to the Shaktoolik checkpoint to wait it out. Mackey went on to win.
This year, Mackey has had other problems with his dogs. Mushers normally start with 16 on their team and drop a few along the trail if they are aren’t performing well. But Mackey was down to 12 dogs early on and had only nine on Friday.
Fiedler said he wouldn’t make too much out of Mackey having only nine dogs.
Mushers need good pulling power provided by bigger teams early in the race, not on the Yukon or when they reach the coast, Fiedler said.
Besides, Mackey is famous for jumping off the back of his sled and running up the hills with his team.
“He’s an animal that way,” Fiedler said. “I wouldn’t want him behind me.”