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With a few days likely left in the Iditarod, a frontrunner gets a time penalty

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dozens of mushers and hundreds of their dogs have been trekking across Alaska for a week now. This is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and they are vying to be the first to put a thousand miles of trail behind them on the way from Anchorage to Nome. Alaska Public Media's Casey Grove has been traveling along with them and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

CASEY GROVE, BYLINE: The 38 sled dog teams in this year's Iditarod began with a ceremonial run through Anchorage, then the official start north of the city in Willow when the race clock started ticking one week ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Three, two, one, go.

GROVE: And then they're off, heading to the northwest almost as far as you can go in the United States. The race harkens back thousands of years to when dog-drawn sleds were a crucial mode of transportation for Alaska's indigenous people and, later, gold miners. Today, competitive long-distance dog mushing has evolved into an intricate science of canine genetics, dog care and wilderness travel in one of the harshest environments on Earth. There are also safeguards in races like the Iditarod, including veterinarians at checkpoints and emergency beacons that each musher carries. At every stop, the mushers' main focus is on the dogs - feeding them, massaging their muscles and rubbing foot ointment into their paws.

Along with frigid temperatures and precarious terrain, though, Iditarod teams must also be prepared to face Alaska's wildlife, namely moose that get as big as 1,500 pounds and can stomp a musher or their dogs to death. Some mushers carry handguns for just such an encounter, and five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was forced to use his only about 100 miles into the race. Seavey was mushing down a hill and around a blind corner when most of his team passed by a large moose. He said he had to scramble to get his .357-caliber revolver out of his sled bag.

DALLAS SEAVEY: And I didn't get it out until the moose was all the way to the back of the team. Right about that time, I thought, this thing might just walk right by us, you know? I mean, it was touching the dogs. And then all of a sudden, it just started kicking.

GROVE: The kicking moose hit the dogs closest to Seavey and his sled, so he shot it, and the giant ungulate fell in the middle of the trail. Race rules require mushers to gut a moose so that its meat can be salvaged. Seavey also had a critically injured dog, Faloo, that he carried to the next checkpoint to see vets before getting flown to Anchorage, where the dog underwent two surgeries. The 5-year-old female is expected to survive.

But race officials later determined Seavey had not sufficiently dealt with the moose and penalized him by adding two hours to a mandatory 24-hour rest stop that Seavey, like all mushers, took during the race. And that penalty could be the difference between first and second place. The championship has been determined by a little over one hour the past two races. Another musher, Jessie Holmes, had gone by the moose before everyone else, including Seavey. Holmes said the moose stood up and came toward him in his sled as it went past.

JESSIE HOLMES: I didn't, like, want to punch the moose in the nose. It was just a last-ditch effort to not get stomped, you know, or to have any dogs get stomped.

GROVE: No other moose encounters have been reported in this year's race. And about 900 miles later, having traveled through mountains, over rolling hills, and along the Yukon River, the teams will now travel along the Bering Sea coastline. And all the while, they rely on their dogs, finely honed athletes capable of running day after day to get them there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS HOWLING)

GROVE: As the mushers say, anything can still happen, but a winner is expected in Nome sometime Tuesday. On the Iditarod Trail in Unalakleet for now, I'm Casey Grove.

KELLY: And one more update - on Sunday, race officials confirmed the deaths of two dogs in the race. The reasons for their deaths are being investigated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "STEP BEYOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Casey Grove - Alaska Public Media