By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - A veteran Alaskan musher looking for his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race victory became the first to reach the official halfway point late on Thursday, pulling into the trail's northern most community.
Aaron Burmeister, 39, arrived in Huslia on the fourth night of this nearly 1,000-mile race, which commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the coastal community of Nome.
Welcome signs and cheers greeted Burmeister in this largely native Alaskan village of fewer than 300 people that serves as a checkpoint in the famed race, now in its 43rd year.
Huslia became part of the trail when race officials designed an alternative route after deeming sections of the traditional trail unsafe for competition.
Iditarod blogger and former competitor Sebastian Schnuelle wrote on the Iditarod website that "the whole town seemed out and about" awaiting Burmeister.
Burmeister still remains nearly 500 miles (800 km) away from the finish line in Nome, his hometown, and a community that lies by the Bering Sea.
He leads defending champion Dallas Seavey, former champion Martin Buser and Norewgian rookie Thomas Waerner.
All three of these racers completed their race-mandated 8-hour rest, but Burmeister has not yet done so. Mushers are also obligated to take a 24-hour break.
While most of the competitors are from Alaska, the race attracts competitors from as far away as Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and France.
This year's winner will receive $70,000 and a new truck, while other top finishers will take home cash prizes from a race purse that exceeds $725,000. Burmeister, who has completed 15 Iditarod races, has placed among the top 10 finishers three times in the last four years. Even if he doesn't win, he will still pocket $3,000 worth of gold nuggets for being the first to arrive in Huslia.
On Monday, 78 mushers left the starting line in Fairbanks in staggered starts – about two to four minutes apart – and began a journey across Alaska's tundra in sub zero temperatures. After four days of racing, nearly 200 miles (321 km) separate the lead musher and his canines from the last place team.
By the time Burmeister arrived in Huslia, 75 mushers remained on the trails. Two withdrew, a third, veteran musher Brent Sass, was disqualified for having a two-way communication device.
Race officials also announced that a dog owned by musher Lance Mackey had died on the trail. A necropsy will be performed.
(Editing by Curtis Skinner and Gareth Jones)