ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Veteran musher John Baker was holding on to his lead Sunday in the 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, at least three hours ahead of his closest rivals.
Baker was the first to leave the village of Unalakleet for the run up Alaska’s wind-scoured western coast on Norton Sound. The finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome is about 270 miles away.
For being the first to arrive in Unalakleet early Sunday, Baker won $2,500 in gold nuggets.
After a four-hour rest, he departed with 11 dogs at 9:12 a.m. Sunday for the 40-mile stretch to the Shaktoolik checkpoint. No other top contenders who arrived in Unalakleet left immediately behind him.
Hans Gatt, who was third into the checkpoint, left about three hours later, taking second place from Ramey Smyth, who was third out.
Hugh Neff, fifth into the checkpoint, called Baker’s lead a “bit of a gap” in a video on the Iditarod website.
“John’s definitely a step up, I think, you know, as far as time management,” Neff said as he laid out straw on the snow for his dogs.
Defending champion Lance Mackey, who is seeking a record fifth consecutive win, was in 11th place. He was heading to Unalakleet on Sunday with just nine dogs remaining on his team.
Running his 15th Iditarod, the 48-year-old Baker is a longtime top contender with 11 top-10 finishes, including two in third place. He lives in Kotzebue, 185 miles north of Nome, and his team is used to the harsh conditions of the region.
The stretch from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik includes barren, open coastline. Weather is always a big concern along this leg, sometimes marked by hurricane-force winds, ground blizzards and temperatures far below zero.
Although Baker’s lead is strong, this is a time sleep-deprived mushers can’t afford to make any mistakes. Top mushers have already taken two mandatory rest stops, with a third awaiting them at the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from Nome. With few strategic options left, correctly calculating a team’s run-rest ratio is crucial. At checkpoints, mushers constantly appraise their dogs to figure out when to get going again.
Race spokesman Chas St. George, however, said Baker has been gaining time on his rivals, not losing any at this point. St. George noted that Baker has said all along his race would begin on the frozen Yukon River, where he seized the lead Saturday.
“This is very familiar territory for John,” St. George said. “He’s in an outstanding place.”
The race began March 5 with 62 teams. Nine mushers have scratched or withdrawn.