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Burmeister First to Huslia as Mushers Strategize Their Layovers

The interior community of Huslia, known for its mushing history, is an Iditarod checkpoint for the first time this year. Photo: Matthew Smith, KNOM.

Despite a grueling run down the Yukon, Ruby was just a pit stop for most mushers—who followed a familiar trail last night and today to Galena. But some of the top teams pressed on to Huslia, and KNOM’s Matthew Smith was there when the first musher came in.

Aaron Burmeister says he hasn’t slept all week—not since the Iditarod’s restart in Fairbanks—but whether it was sheer determination or energy from the cheering crowd, both he and his team marched strongly into Huslia on Thursday night—the first time the interior community well known for its mushing history has hosted an Iditarod checkpoint.

“Thank you guys!” shouted Burmeister, amid the cheering crowd. “This is pretty exciting.”

Nome's Aaron Burmeister is the first musher into the halfway point of Huslia. Photo: Matthew Smith, KNOM.

In darkness, Nome’s Aaron Burmeister is the first musher to pull in to the halfway point of Huslia. Photo: Matthew Smith, KNOM.

By midnight, Burmeister and last year’s winner, Dallas Seavey, were the only two mushers in to the Huslia checkpoint. Burmeister chipped away at ice and snow as he unharnessed his team—saying that being in the lead is somewhat of a surprise—especially given the setbacks his team’s dealt with from the beginning.

“You guys are awesome, what a good run! You guys had such a long day today,” he said. “Dogs did great. I haven’t slept yet during this race, believe it or not. I have a female in heat and a sick team pretty much all the way. But they’re finally getting healthy and they’re starting to look like a dog team again.”

Several other mushers—including Martin Buser, Norwegian rookie Thomas Waerner, and Tok musher Hugh Neff—were still on the roughly 80-mile trail of lakes and portages to Huslia. But Galena was humming all of Thursday with energy, food, and a host of mushers taking their mandatory rests. Mushers like Jeff King—who blew through Ruby after more than 100 miles on the Yukon and was the first to arrive in Galena—earning him $3,500 in cash and a gourmet dinner.

King says his dogs were clipping along at too good of a pace to stop them in Ruby—and he says he took his required 24 hour rest in Galena in the hopes that others could break the unknown trail to Huslia.

“I was pretty sure someone would go on up to Huslia, and it may not be a big deal, but we’re going to learn something about the trail to Huslia before we leave here. And that’s information the guys ahead of us didn’t have,” said King. “If they ran into open water, we’re going to hear about it, and we’ll know about it. We’ll know how long it took. Not a big deal, but it’s all little pieces that come together.”

Mushers spent their day snacking—both their dogs and themselves—and tending to their teams: rubbing creams and oils into joints and catching some sleep in checkpoint’s bunks. Galena was also where several other parts of the race came together Thursday—the race’s teacher on the trail, the Google Streetview team that mushed only as far south as Nenana—and a group of Norwegian fans who hung a banner over the food drops cheering their mushing countrymen, and woman, along.

“It’s just to support the Norwegian mushers: Joar Ulsom, Thomas Waerner, and Yvonne Dabakk. So it says ‘Go!’ and the names of the Norway mushers and the Norway flag,” said one fan. “Just to show our support.”

While several mushers took their 24 in Galena, Mitch Seavey was finishing his back in Ruby—still feeding and tending his team in the pre-dawn darkness. Overhead, the sky was on fire—as green and purple aurorae danced their ghostly dance.

“I see… one of the Northern Lights displays that would probably be memorable. Rarely have I seen them more brilliant than that,” said Seavey. “We have to enjoy that, and we certainly do, it’s part of what attracts us to this sport. And you’ll find in the middle of being tired or cold or working hard that those, those joys that we get to experience are really a part of the reward, whatever position you’re in.”

And that position is set to change, yet again. As mushers finish up their 24, times are adjusted, and the leaders are starting to jockey for position. Burmesiter’s triumphant arrival in Huslia means only that other mushers are coming off of rests of their own—and setting up their own runs to make sure they’ll be the first under the burled arch.