ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a topsy-turvy slog this year marked by heavy wet snow, occasional rain, dwindling ice and a dog rebellion, was expected to conclude early on Wednesday with either an Alaskan or Norwegian musher crowned the winner.
Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska, was out in front early on Tuesday, but only narrowly, with a 41-minute lead over defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway. The two front-runners led a field of 42 remaining mushers, after 10 teams dropped out during the contest.
Kaiser and Liefseth Ulsom both arrived in the morning at the native Inupiat village of White Mountain, a checkpoint 77 miles (124 km) from the finish line at the Gold Rush town of Nome. Rules require an eight-hour stop at White Mountain before the final push to Nome. The two contenders were expected to leave the village late Tuesday afternoon.
If he wins, Kaiser, who is Yupik, will be the first Alaska Native Iditarod champion since 2011, when Inupiat John Baker claimed victory. Should Liefseth Ulsom cross the finish line first, he would become only the second Norwegian champion, following two previous victories by his countryman Robert Sorlie in the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) Alaska race.
The winner this year will be awarded a new truck and about $50,000 in cash, the top prize from a total $500,000 purse. The world’s best-known dog-sled race commemorates a rescue mission that used a dog-team relay to deliver lifesaving medicine to Nome during a 1925 diphtheria outbreak.
Until Monday, French-born musher Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, Alaska, had appeared to be en route to victory - until his dogs stopped along a stretch of the Bering Sea coastline, about 200 miles (320 km) from Nome, and refused to go farther. Petit sent his dogs off the trail by snowmobile and officially dropped out of the race on Monday night.
In third and fourth place on Tuesday were the Iditarod’s top women: Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, Alaska.
The Iditarod speed record is eight days, three hours and 40 minutes, set by Mitch Seavey in 2017. This year’s race, which began on March 2 in Anchorage, has been significantly slower.
Higher-than-normal temperatures created soft conditions, bogging down the teams. The Bering Sea, usually coated with a layer of ice on the northern section, is almost entirely free of ice, so race officials made course alterations that slightly lengthened part of the route. Racers also had to detour around some spots of open river water.
Many contestants timed their runs for after dark to take advantage of cooler weather favored by their dogs.
Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jonathan Oatis