Mackey Leads Halfway Through Iditarod

Thursday, March 8th 2007, 10:44 am
By: News On 6

TAKOTNA, Alaska (AP) _ Lance Mackey is chasing his dream. The other mushers are chasing him at the halfway point of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Mackey arrived in Iditarod at the halfway mark of the 1,100-mile race shortly after midnight Thursday with hopes of being first into Nome, just like his father in 1978 and brother, Rick, in 1983.

The 36-year-old Mackey, of Fairbanks, reached the creekside ghost town six minutes ahead of 50-year-old Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof, who finished third in last year's Iditarod. Mackey wins $3,000 in gold nuggets for being the first musher to reach the halfway point.

Close behind are 2004 winner Mitch Seavey and Ed Iten, who finished second in 2005. The two began the 90-mile journey from Ophir to Iditarod just before 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, most teams in the top half of the field were resting Thursday morning in Takotna, known as one of the most hospitable communities on the trail. Jan Newton and her husband, Dick, have run the race checkpoint at Takotna for 30 years, serving up steaks and dishing out pie to mushers headed to Nome.

Some mushers can't help but stay awhile. That's because at this checkpoint, they are treated like family.

``Any musher gets steak. Sometimes we have lobster, sometimes it's steak and crab,'' Jan Newton said.

The 70-year-old pulled pies out of the oven and grilled up steaks and fries Wednesday to serve to the mushers at the checkpoint about 700 miles from the finish line.

``They've earned it,'' she said.

Ramy Brooks, a 38-year-old from Healy, said he was really sick during the 2000 race when he arrived in Takotna. He was able to see a doctor who helped him get back on the trail and finish fourth. It wasn't until after the race that he learned he had pneumonia.

``They make it pretty comfortable. That's why I come here,'' said Brooks, who was in 16th place.

The Takotna checkpoint is open 24 hours a day. It's where mushers know a long table with a red and white tablecloth awaits them. It's where they can get warm, dry out their clothes, commiserate with fellow mushers and contemplate the trail ahead.

``It is kind of crazy,'' Newton said, as she pulled cherry pies from the oven, stopping for a second to give instructions to about 40 volunteers who keep the food flowing and the mushers fed.

And Newton serves up more than food. She remembers some of these mushers from when they were young men. Now many of them have families of their own.

``They are like family, mostly,'' Newton said.

The Newtons try to give the mushers what they want. All they have to do is ask. If it's not on the menu, it will be, if Jan Newton has the ingredients.

``They will feed you as much as you can eat. They really spoil you here,'' said Aaron Burmeister, a 31-year-old from Nenana, as he bit into a fried egg and bacon sandwich. ``I asked them if they could make it and they said, 'No problem.'''

Each community along the Iditarod trail puts out the welcome mat for the mushers, Brooks said.

``The kids in Nikolai gave us moose soup, which was wonderful,'' he said.

About a dozen college students from Norway were seated at one of the tables. Dick Newton, 76, is teaching the students about hunting and trapping and living in the wilderness. The students are staying in Alaska for three months.

One of the students is Petter Ekran, a 21-year-old from Trondheim, Norway, younger brother of rookie Sigrid Ekran, who was in 18th place Wednesday, just behind Burmeister.

``I am pretty impressed,'' Ekran said, when asked about his sister who arrived in Nikolai with a broken nose after a particularly bad spill. ``She is very strong mentally.''

Eighty-two teams started the race Sunday. Since then, 14 have scratched, with some of the mushers breaking bones and busting up their sleds on a rough trail.