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Nikolai Roundup: Gebhardt, Berkowitz, Sass, Bailey, & Williams

At mid-week, it’s a time for rest for many of the mushers in Iditarod 40: including five of the competitors KNOM’s Laureli Kinneen interviewed last night in the checkpoint of Nikolai. Judging by their replies, the rest is well-deserved: the trail has presented challenges for both longtime veterans and Iditarod rookies. But, almost unanimously, the mushers featured below agree on at least one word to describe their runs so far: fun.

Longtime musher Paul Gebhardt says the caliber of this year’s Iditarod mushers make the race “pretty competitive.” That, on top of an inconsistent trail, has kept things interesting for the Kasilof, Alaska musher. “It’s been a wild ride,” Gebhardt says; “the trail has given us all kinds of stuff.” Gebhardt reported that his sled had been damaged by a collision with a tree stump during the run over the infamously difficult Farewell Burn. There are “lots of all kinds of things” on the trail, Gebhardt says, with deep snow in some areas and virtually no snow in others.

As for the race ahead, Gebhardt says he’ll need “a little more speed” to win it in 2012:

25-year-old Jake Berkowitz is happy with his Iditarod progress so far, although he notes it was “hard work for the dogs” making it to the Nikolai checkpoint.

This year’s trail is slower, Berkowitz says, likely owing to relatively warmer temperatures and deep snow in places.

As for the trail beyond Nikolai, the Minnesota-born musher predicted he would “try something different this year” and “shake things up a little bit” by not taking his mandatory 24-hour layover in Takotna, as many Iditarod mushers do.* (See below for an update on this prediction.) He conceded, however, that more slow-going on the trail could change his mind, as could the charms of Takotna; the checkpoint’s famous hamburgers, Berkowitz says, “do call sometimes”:

Brent Sass has never competed in the Iditarod before, although he’s no rookie to dog mushing: he’s a veteran of another Alaskan sled dog race, the Yukon Quest.

In his interview with Laureli, Sass reported having “a good time” in his Iditarod 2012 run so far; he said he’s happy with his dogs and keeping his race strategy fluid, adapting to what’s happening on the trail and running “by the seat of my pants.”

Even though it can be “a little nerve-wracking” to experience the Iditarod trail for the first time, Sass says, the musher struck an optimistic tone, saying that his dogs are getting better as they go further.

Our interview had a friendly interruption from Iditarod musher-turned-reporter Sebastian Schnuelle, who confirmed that the term “rookie” isn’t accurate when it comes to Brent Sass:

In Nikolai, musher Jodi Bailey said she wasn’t too worried about the race standings – at least not yet.

In the 2012 race, Bailey says she’s enjoying the “social experience” of spending time with friends on the trail and not too fixated on the highly talented, competitive field of her fellow mushers. With Laureli, the Chatanika, Alaska musher also brought her own perspective to the difficulties of the race: the challenges of the Iditarod trail make it an “adventure,” Bailey insists, just as it should be:

Like Gebhardt, Berkowitz, Sass, and Bailey, Akiak’s own Mike Williams, Jr. says he’s having “fun”: even when his dogs take a wrong turn on the trail (as they did along the trail before Nikolai).

The Western Alaskan musher talked with Laureli Kinneen about the overall trail conditions – including the challenges of the Farewell Burn – and surveyed his dog team, hoping that they would “perk up” in later stretches of the race:

As of 12:50pm Wednesday afternoon, all of the above mushers are in the Takotna checkpoint, where they are likely taking their mandatory 24-hour layover. Paul Gebhardt arrived at 1:59am with 13 dogs, Brent Sass at 4:27am with 15 dogs, Jodi Bailey at 5:32am with 15 dogs, and Michael Williams, Jr. at 4:55am with 15 dogs.

*Despite his prediction to bypass Nikolai and take his 24 elsewhere, Jake Berkowitz also seems to be taking a long rest in Takotna; he arrived at 3:34am with 15 dogs.