‘The best trail I’ve ever seen’: Iditarod teams rest in the sun at Rainy Pass as they settle into the competition

A checker welcoming Thomas Waerner to the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday during the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Rainy Pass is about 150 miles into the 1,000-mile race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Largely uneventful. That was, in general terms, how the first Iditarod teams arriving at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday afternoon described the trail about 150 miles into the 1,000-mile sled dog race.

Although they battled storms and deep snow the first dozen miles, many said the trail ascending the Alaska Range to the checkpoint here — down the notorious Happy River steps — was as good as they ever remember it.

“Early on was a horrible trail, worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s getting pretty good,” said Wade Marrs, of Willow. “Probably the best trail I’ve ever seen going into Finger Lake, and really nice going into here, so, but the Yentna, Skwentna stretch was pretty bad.”

Marrs was the sixth musher to pull into Rainy Pass with his 14 sled dogs on Monday. He opted to rest his team here, in the mid-afternoon sun. Most of the first mushers also decided to take a break at the checkpoint on the frozen Puntilla Lake, near Rainy Pass Lodge.

[Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.]

The scenic spot is close enough to the road system that it attracts small planes full of race fans, reporters and tourists. Dozens of people walked around the dog teams to take photographs and chat with mushers.

Marrs was using a knife to split up frozen hunks of beef, salmon and tripe to feed his dogs. He, like many mushers, was settling into the long-distance racing routine of run, rest and repeat.

“If they keep this pace up they’ll be moving at a pretty nice pace later on,” he said of his sled dogs. “So hopefully this is their thing and we’ll just stick with it. But they have gotten faster on every single run and I don’t know if that’s the dog team or the trail or a little bit of both.”

Sled dog Darby on the team of musher Wade Marrs at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Marrs said he uses the leggings to keep deep snow from sticking to the dogs’ fur. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

In the sunshine with mild temperatures and some manageable wind, Richie Diehl seemed pleased with the trail and his team so far. The Aniak musher pulled in fourth to Rainy Pass.

“I mean you’re just climbing in and out of the hills, you know, so it’s kinda slow in that way, but I thought it was a pretty good run over,” he said.

Richie Diehl at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Defending Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser, of Bethel, had a similar trail description, and seemed unphased by the squall early on. He arrived first to Rainy Pass early Monday afternoon.

“The first four hours of the race going to Yentna was real slow, just like everyone thought it would be, deep, and then it sort of improved mile by mile after that,” he said. “And Finger Lake to here was a great trail.”

One musher having a particularly good Monday was Paige Drobny, of Cantwell. She drew the last starting spot, leaving Willow in 57th place. But she pulled onto Puntilla Lake in 10th. She said she thinks she was able to leapfrog so much because she had a different run-rest schedule.

“I did three runs to here, and I think a lot of people are doing four,” she said, as she fetched water from a hole in the ice. “I ran for six and a half, rested for three, ran for six and a half, rested for four, ran for five to get here.”

A sled dog team passes a resting team on Monday during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

By Tuesday morning, mushers were approaching Nikolai, at about mile 260 of the trail. Diehl was the first to the village, where temperatures hovered around 30 degrees below zero. He pulled in around 10:30 a.m.

Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah