The Iditarod mushers and their sled dogs rest in the heat of the day

FINGER LAKE — Musher Shaynee Traska massaged the paw of her sled dog named Julius here early Monday afternoon. She was not wearing gloves. She didn’t have to. Temperatures easily pushed into the 20s. Hot for sled dogs.

“It’s like Jamaica to them,” Traska said at the checkpoint about 123 miles into the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race.

Traska lives in Two Rivers in Interior Alaska. Her dogs prefer to run in temperatures between around 0 and 10 degrees, she said.

Warmer temperatures meant a midday rest for Traska’s sled dogs. Several other teams also paused at the checkpoint here, based at the remote Winterlake Lodge. Once the temperatures drop, some said they would get back on the track. Others continued to run.

At the Finger Lake checkpoint, mushers fed their dogs and fed themselves under clear skies and bright sunshine. The mushers took off their jackets. A few were resting in the straw with their dogs. Some went to a yellow tent to take a nap. Lodge guests and other visitors walked around the teams.

“It really is our favorite time of year,” said Mandy Dixon, the executive chef of the lodge her family owns. On the menu for mushers on Monday: roasted beets and squash, fried eggs and a choice of reindeer or duck sausage.

Mushers reported a snowy trail between Willow and Finger Lake. There were pockets of soft snow and a bumpy trail at the start, but then the snow firmed up, said Seward musher Travis Beals.

“It was a bit difficult to get the dogs up to speed, but we are making progress on the track,” he said. “There’s a sign there that says 852 miles to Nome, so we have plenty of time.”

Other mushers also said they were getting into the rhythm of a long-distance sled dog race on Monday – the first full day of the Iditarod.

“I always feel a little tired right away, but I get used to it,” three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey said Monday morning as he strapped booties to the legs of his sled dog, Ghost. “The dogs look good.”

Nearby, Illinois musher Charley Bejna poured hot water into a cooler to prepare food for his team of dogs. In the six weeks leading up to the Iditarod, Bejna said, he reduced the amount of sleep he got to around four or five hours a night to prepare for the race.

Yet, he says, he found himself falling asleep on his sleigh when he came here.

Musher Jessica Klejka, a Big Lake veterinarian, said she ate chocolate-covered coffee beans from the back of her sled early Monday to stay awake.

As far as trail drama goes, several mushers interviewed on Monday reported little chaos so far.

“I haven’t had any affairs yet,” Seavey said. “I hope it stays that way.”

Ryan Redington, who lives in Skagway, had a peculiar sighting: a non-Iditarod dog was running down the trail between his team and Bethel musher Pete Kaiser. This dog, named Dillon, had escaped from Winterlake Lodge and made it all the way to the Rainy Pass checkpoint, about 30 miles away.

Dillon was back in Finger Lake on Monday, according to Carl Dixon, owner of the lodge with his wife.

Meanwhile, at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, other mushers and their sled dogs also rested in the afternoon sun.

Swedish musher Mats Pettersson dropped a piece of pizza in a vacuum sealed bag into boiling water. Pettersson reported heavy snow on the Happy River Steps – a notorious series of switchbacks between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints. It made the race easier than usual, he said. Once he got off the trail and the snow came up to his hips.

“I’ve never seen so much snow there,” he said.

“Perfect conditions,” Redington said.

Nearby, Nenana’s musher, Jessie Holmes, used a power drill to fix her broken sled. Holmes said he didn’t hit anything on the track, part of his sled just fell apart.

But he remained positive about his repair and continuing his run.

“You don’t just give up on something like that. You’ll fix whatever you have to do and you’ll get there. You have to have that attitude,” he said. “You can’t dwell on things because the dogs will figure it out, you know?”

Holmes said he was also happy with his timing in Rainy Pass: He and his 14 dogs stopped at 11:03 a.m. Monday and rested for nearly five hours, during the heat of the day.

It was important, he said, because “it’s extremely hot.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Winterlake Lodge free-roaming dog’s name.

Bette C. Alvarado