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Rick Swenson Leads Iditarod

March 10, 1998

RAINY PASS, Alaska (AP) _ Iditarod dogs snoozed on beds of straw Monday, looking so comfortable in the implausibly warm sun that musher Rick Swenson curled up next to Banjo, one of his leaders, and napped.

``I have no complaints about the trial,″ said Swenson, first to pull into this Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race checkpoint, two days and 120 miles into the race to Nome.

Swenson arrived at the Rainy Pass checkpoint deep in the Alaska Range at 8:14 a.m., 1 1/2 hours ahead of nearest competitor Charlie Boulding of Manley. Vern Halter of Willow arrived just four minutes after Boulding.

By early evening, eight teams had departed Rainy Pass to head over the Alaska Range.

On the trail to Rohn were Ramy Brooks of Fairbanks, John Barron of Montana Creek, Boulding, Halter, two-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Linwood Fiedler of Willow and rookie Hans Gatt of Canada.

Camped just outside the Rainy Pass checkpoint were defending champ Martin Buser of Big Lake and Montana’s Doug Swingley, who won in 1995. Neither team had departed by 4 p.m.

Teams arrived throughout the afternoon to park on snow-covered Puntilla Lake, rest their 16-dog teams and offer hot, soupy chow cooked in oversized camp stoves carried in the musher’s sled. Racers ship straw and bags of freeze-dried food are shipped to trail checkpoints weeks in advance.

``I’ll probably make a little fish chowder with a little seal in it,″ said Joe Garnie of Teller, a northwest Alaska village. ``Seal is the main staple of man and beast up in the north.″

Drivers completing the overnight run from Skwetna to Puntilla Lake pronounced the trail fast.

``With a trail this good and weather this good, it hardly seems like Iditarod anymore,″ said Linwood Fiedler of Willow, a veteran of nine races, including the storm-plagued 1991 event.

``The trail’s groomed, it’s fast. It’s just too hot,″ Fiedler said.

Swenson and two-time champ Jeff King outfitted their dark-colored dogs with sun-deflecting fabric worn like a cape. Fiedler, who noticed a dog or two on his team preferring to lie in cool snow rather than straw, said he hadn’t planned to stop at Rainy Pass but was halted by the heat of the day.

Mushers generally say cold to 20 below is best for dogs. Monday’s reading at Rainy Pass reached 36 degrees. Sunshine made it feel at least five degrees hotter.

Longer rests at Rainy Pass have mushers rethinking their strategy. Fiedler, who finished 17th last year, said the goal is to leave the Rohn checkpoint _ 48 miles northwest of Rainy Pass _ early enough in the day to avoid covering the 93-mile stretch to Nikolai when the sun is high.

Four dogs, one each from Jonrowe’s, King’s, Brooks’ and Halter’s teams, were dropped at Rainy Pass.

Sixty-three teams _ including four past champions _ are entered in this year’s race, as well as 19 rookies and mushers from five foreign countries.

Swenson added interest to the 26th Iditarod by reentering after being withdrawn in 1996 when a dog in his team died along the trail.

Swenson, who never finished lower than 10th in 20 Iditarods, bitterly protested and the decision was overturned last year. But he sat out 1997 anyway.

Swenson has said he’s running in part to honor his dog Ariel, who died of apparent strangulation in 1996.

``I’m as confident as anyone,″ he said.

Mushers say they expect rough terrain in the usual spots in the first few days, including the Dalzell Gorge, which drops 1,000 feet in 5 1/2 miles. The twisty downhill is full of blind corners, hairpins turns and big boulders.

Another rough spot is Happy Valley, where teams negotiate a steep descent and scale back up the canyon’s other side.

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