HUSLIA — Nome musher Aaron Burmeister entered the checkpoint here at 9:47 p.m. Thursday to cheers as the first musher to reach the halfway point of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Burmeister was the first to leave the previous checkpoint, Galena, just before 6:30 a.m. and mushed the 82 miles in what he called a “high-maintenance” run. That was because of an illness other dog teams had suffered through as well. Upon reaching the Huslia checkpoint, Burmeister declared he was taking his mandatory 24-hour layover here. He had 13 dogs in harness.
Burmeister said he had been stopping often and babying the dogs, who had started to look healthier between Galena and Huslia.
“The dogs did incredible,” Burmeister said while checking his team. “They’re finally getting healthy and starting to look like a dog team again.”
By arriving first in Huslia, Burmeister wins the Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award and $3,000 in gold nuggets. Huslia residents also pitched in to make beaver mittens and a marten hat. The villagers had lined the chute guiding in Burmeister’s team and shouted in unison, “Welcome to Huslia!”
It had been like winning the whole race, Burmeister said, with the crowd gathered.
A white, 6-year-old dog named Moss had led his team well, Burmeister said. Asked about her, Burmeister chuckled.
“That little leader up front has really stepped up for me,” he said. “She’s doing incredible. Because I have a whole team of lead dogs here, and (there are) females in heat. There’ve been a lot of U-turns on this race.”
Burmeister said he had about three 45-minute breaks on runs between Manley Hot Springs and Ruby.
“Just because they decided that making puppies was more fun than going down the trail,” he said. “I’ve had a few unplanned stops, but I got that little female up front, and she’s running lead, because the others are too distracted.”
“Right, Nick?” he said to another dog. “What do you have on your mind right now?”
Burmeister finished the 2014 Iditarod in 10th after badly damaging his knee early in that year’s race. In Nikolai, he could barely walk around the checkpoint and had to splint his leg.
This time, Burmeister said the same knee was sore, but it was feeling better the more he kept it moving.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I haven’t slept yet during this race, believe it or not.”
Also on the trail to Huslia late Thursday were defending champion Dallas Seavey, Martin Buser, Thomas Waerner, Hugh Neff, Curt Perano and Ken Anderson.
Another 20 or so mushers remained in Galena, including four-time champion Jeff King.
King claimed a gourmet meal as the first to arrive there early Thursday. The Millennium Alaskan Hotel Anchorage flew its chef to the checkpoint — 396 miles into the 1,000-mile race to the coastal town of Nome — to prepare a five-course meal to include crab-stuffed tenderloin and bananas Foster.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and is covering the Iditarod this year. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.