ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Imagine standing on a sled behind a team of 16 dogs, traveling mile after desolate mile in the Alaska wilderness without any sign of other human life.
All of a sudden, lights shine off in the distance, the first village to come into view in a very long time.
Whether it’s a single cabin or a booming village of several hundred people, for mushers on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the villages are not only checkpoints to eat, rest and recharge, but a chance to interact with someone other than their dogs.
“There are no checkpoints that I dislike,” said defending champion Dallas Seavey. “Every time you come around the corner and see the lights of a checkpoint approaching, it’s a great sight.”
Four-time champion Martin Buser rested at the checkpoint in Rohn after a blistering fast 170-mile run that had put him hours ahead of the other teams.
Buser reached Rohn at Monday and was taking his mandatory 24-hour rest there, watching other mushers arrive and leave.
That put Aaron Burmeister in the lead Tuesday morning. He was the first to pull into the Nikolai checkpoint 75 miles past Rohn, arriving at 8:11 a.m.
Running second was Paul Gebhardt, who left Rohn at 7:26 p.m. Monday, followed by Aliy Zirkle four minutes later.
There are 26 checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, and for Zirkle, last year’s runner-up, the reception that teams receive are truly Alaska events: Villagers welcome the dogs first.
“And it’s an open-armed greeting, where they want to make sure all the dogs are OK, and they get straw for them and food for them,” said Zirkle, running her 13th Iditarod. “Then they say, ‘How are you doing, Aliy?’”
There are two ghost towns that serve as checkpoints along the trail, including the race’s namesake, the former mining village of Iditarod, which once boasted a population of 10,000 people.
The ghost towns fill up with support staff during the race, but are empty the rest of the year.
But other villages are just like small towns in the Lower 48.
“They have schools, they have post offices, they have a runway,” race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said.