ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A 15-year Iditarod veteran who has never finished higher than fourth was back in the lead Sunday in the 2015 race to Nome, his hometown.
Aaron Burmeister, 39, was the first musher to reach Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on the Bering Sea coast.
He covered the 90 miles of trail from Kaltag in 11 hours. Unalakleet is 269 miles from Nome.
Burmeister left Kaltag in third place with 13 dogs after taking a mandatory eight-hour layover at the last checkpoint on the Yukon River. He left in bitter cold temperatures behind Aliy Zirkle and four-time champion Jeff King.
Mushers will face hard-packed trail and chilling North Pacific winds as they run up the coast from Unalakleet and finish at the historic gold rush city.
King, 59, a four-time champion who last won the race in 2006, rested for more than six hours in Kaltag and left 12 minutes before Burmeister's eight hours were up.
Both were more rested than Zirkle, who reached Kaltag at 2:34 a.m. Sunday and stayed just 14 minutes before leaving with 14 dogs in harness.
Some mushers choose not to rest at checkpoints, where competitors can keep track of them, and Zirkle may have rested her team after leaving Kaltag.
The temperature along the trail leaving Kaltag was 30 degrees below zero at midmorning Sunday but there was no wind, the National Weather Service reported.
Unalakleet, at minus 6, was nearly 25 degrees warmer. However, after passing Old Woman Mountain, a prominent landmark 58 miles out of Kaltag, mushers faced 32 miles of trail that's often windy.
Forecasters reported winds of 21 mph in Unalakleet.
By midafternoon Sunday, 17 mushers had left Kaltag.
Among others in the hunt were two recent champions: Dallas Seavey, who won last year, and his father, Mitch Seavey, who won in 2013.
Dallas Seavey of Willow left Kaltag about three hours, 12 minutes after Zirkle.
In fifth was the only out-of-state musher in the top six. Jesse Royer of Darby, Montana, who stayed just 13 minutes in Kaltag and left at 6 a.m.
Mitch Seavey of Sterling departed just before 8 a.m. He was down to 12 dogs.
The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race began March 9 in Fairbanks with 78 mushers.
Five mushers have scratched and one has been disqualified. The latest to scratch was Philip Walters of Eagle River, Alaska, in Galena.
Two dogs have died, including one on the team of four-time champion Lance Mackey.