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Teams rest during warm temperatures at Rainy Pass after running a ‘superhighway’ of an Iditarod trail

Rainy Pass checkpoint, March 8, 2021.
Rainy Pass checkpoint, March 8, 2021.(Sean Maguire/KTUU)
Published: Mar. 8, 2021 at 6:31 PM AKST
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - It was a bluebird day at Rainy Pass and four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser was feeling less anxious.

The Gold Trail Loop will take mushers and their dogs across the Alaska Range before they head to the ghost town of Iditarod. They’ll circle around Flat and come back over the Alaska Range a second time before finishing at Deshka Landing.

Notorious stretches of the Iditarod Trail like Dalzell Gorge and the Happy Steps kept Buser up at night thinking how he would tackle them backwards when the trail is designed to go in one direction.

“I was extremely anxious. I was really worried about it, and I’ve done it once or twice,” Buser said.

Trailbreakers have smoothed out many of the most troublesome sections between the Finger Lake checkpoint and Rainy Pass. Buser said that stretch is the best he’s seen it in over 30 years of driving dogs down the trail.

“I’m really happy with how much effort they have put in, like I say, to making it user friendly. That was really, really nice to see,” he said.

Buser has installed a “rough locking” system on his sled, just in case. It allows him to pull a cord where he stands and have small chains drop beneath his runners, giving him more traction down steep, icy sections of the trail.

Aliy Zirkle, a 20-time Iditarod finisher, described the trail into Rainy Pass as a ”superhighway,” coming back though could be a ”whole other ball of wax.”

In the heat of the day, close to a dozen teams rested at Rainy Pass. Teams waited for temperatures to drop as they hovered in the 20s before they pushed on to the Rohn checkpoint and beyond.

Mushers said the trail had been firm and few had serious issues.

A few teams blew through Rainy Pass after running with little rest since leaving Deshka Landing on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s interesting seeing how other people are doing things so far, definitely not what I’ve expected. It doesn’t really matter what they do until later, when I need to catch ‘em,” said Wade Marrs, a top-four Iditarod finisher, while laughing.

Marrs said he had a couple of spills, once near the start of the race and another time on a steep section of trail coming out of Finger Lake.

“Luckily, I was able to hold on,” Marrs said.

He wasn’t injured and laughed it off.

Travis Beals, a Seward-based Iditarod veteran who finished fifth in 2019, also collided with a tree. He said he ripped his jacket but that he was fine.

Beals’ team has looked good.

“All the young ones are actually really surprising me, I was worried about their experience,” he said.

While feeding his dogs, 2019 Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser also pointed to one of his young dogs as one to watch. Lash, named because of a “goofy eyelash” under his right eye, is 18 months old and a single pup from Kaiser’s golden harness winning leader Morrow.

“He’s just a cool dude, just really following in his mom’s footsteps, hopefully,” Kaiser said.

Some mushers are thinking of where they will take their 24-hour stops, but several say they’ll wait and see what comes next before making a firm decision. It’s hard to tell 150 miles down the trail who are the top competitors.

“If you see a team that looks good three or 400 miles from now, you better watch out,” Kaiser said.

COVID-19 had threatened to end the 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race before it began. But it hasn’t made much of a difference for mushers in the early stages of the race.

“To this point, no one competitive every really goes inside,” said Matthew Failor, an Iditarod veteran who’s hoping for a top-10 finish. “I’m going to see if the lodge is open for drinking water, but, if not, I’ll get some hot water boiling and heat up my Gatorade.”

Warm weather gives dogs a rest. Mushers rested outside, too, casually chatting with each other and enjoying the scenery at one of the most picturesque spots on the trail.

“It’s beautiful man, doesn’t get any better than this,” Failor said.

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