Volunteers step in to grab the dog leads to keep them in place. Or, as in place as you can keep a team of 16 dogs that were bred to run all-out while pulling hundreds of pounds. Teams that stop for a rest are directed toward a slot on the ice. The ones that are going through turn left, go up a hill, and disappear behind the lodge. Mackey's team gets a lot of company as the frozen lake is converted to a dog lot. "They love to lie down and play in that straw. And of course they love to eat and drink. It's a party," says Plettner. Soon enough, hay, frozen meat, and dried dog food litter the once-pristine snow.
While feeding her dogs, Plettner has the first of two meals she'll eat at the checkpoint simmering in her portable cooker. It's her routine. It never changes. "You're no good to your dogs if you don't take care of yourself," she says. Though she usually cooks the second meal herself, as well, at Finger Lake, there's one waiting in the lodge kitchen for every musher. For many, it's a welcome chance "to sit on a real chair and talk to real people in a real, dry atmosphere," says Plettner. Mackey stays at the checkpoint more than eight hours and works two lodge meals into his day.
As mushers walk into the kitchen, they shed their heavy parkas. Gossip and banter come easy as they eat. Rookie mushers, with a look on their face that makes it clear that they're starting to understand what they've gotten themselves into, gather information from the veterans. Plettner and the others offer what they can, but, by this point, it won't do much. "It takes so many years to get good at this. If you handed [a rookie] the top winning team from last year, they would not make it to the finish line. It's like giving a little kid a Ferrari," she says. "It's not possible to verbally give somebody information that will do anything but improve the quality of dog care."
After the meal, the mushers head back down to check on their dogs. Some ready their teams for the next section of the trail; others settle in for the night. Past Finger Lake, the terrain gets tricky. It's hard enough by day, but at night it can be disastrous. Teams turn into living pachinko balls as they hit the switchbacks and plummeting downhills that tumble them toward the Happy River. Then it's two more hours of narrow, winding trails. A place for taking a break is hard to come by.
"It's one of those stretches that you don't get to see a whole lot of except for what's right in front of you," says Mackey. "You have to be on your toes and riding your sled. There's no time for checking out the scenery."
He adds: "This sport isn't for everybody, but it's sure right up my alley."
The 2007 race starts on March 3 at 10 a.m. The easiest place to get up close to the dogs is at the ceremonial start in Anchorage. While the stretch between downtown Anchorage and Campbell Airstrip doesn't count toward the teams' final times, it's a perfect route for spectators to watch the mushers and their powerhouse teams work together. Since there is a staggered start, the mushers depart over several hours, meaning you can watch a few teams take off, grab a reindeer sausage from a street vendor, warm up in one of the city's numerous coffee shops, take a nap, and still have time to head to the airstrip to watch teams finish their first day. If you prefer to amp up your Iditarod adventure with some rustic luxury and gourmet meals, fly out to Winterlake Lodge (907-274-2710, www.withinthewild.com). Or opt for a day flight to Finger Lake with Rust's Flying Service - and keep your fingers crossed that the weather holds (800-544-2299, www.flyrusts.com). For more information on the race, visit www.iditarod.com.