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AP Photo Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser drives his team off of the Takotna River and into the Takotna, Alaska checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday.

Four-time champion Buser takes Iditarod lead

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Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

TAKOTNA, Alaska (AP) -- Four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Martin Buser breezed through the tiny town of Takotna, spending less than a minute Wednesday before jumping on his sled runners and snatching the lead.

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Buser wasted no time as he headed out of the checkpoint, a town of a few dozen people known for giving Iditarod mushers the biggest welcome, and tempting them off the 1,100-mile trail with homemade pies and the soothing sounds of Merle Haggard playing on the stereo in the community center.

Buser chose to push on but other mushers -- many of them the superstars of the sport -- were pausing in Takotna, giving their teams a long rest at the checkpoint about 700 miles from the finish line in Nome.

There was a method to their madness, they said. Better to wait and let the trail set up and become less soft and punchy. Four-time champion Jeff King said there is so much snow this year, and the snow banks are so high, he can't even see his leaders going around corners.

King was fifth into Takotna, behind Aaron Burmeister, Hugh Neff, Sebastian Schnuelle and defending champion Lance Mackey.

At this point in the Iditarod, the actual leader is hard to figure. That's because mushers are required to rest their teams for 24 hours. Many choose to meet the requirement in Takotna, but not Buser.

Buser may be ahead on the trail but in actuality is hours behind Burmeister and the other leaders once the 24-hour break is factored in.

Mushers also are required to take two 8-hour breaks before the finish.

Mackey, who sat down to a double cheeseburger and fries, chose to do his 24-hour rest in Takotna. He said it makes sense to hold in Takotna and let another musher break trail.

"I don't care who does it," Mackey said, of Buser's decision to move down the trail first.

Race officials have warned about possible encounters with moose along the trail. Instead of moving through the deep snow, moose may travel on the trail. The large animals have been known to attack and stomp a team rather than give up the trail.

Schnuelle said he was 25 miles out of the Rohn checkpoint when he met a moose that wouldn't budge. The moose was standing 5 feet off the trail and he was afraid it would attack. It didn't as he went by.

"The dogs went bonkers," Schnuelle said. "It is the closest I've ever been to a moose and the closest I ever want to be."

Moose are nothing new, said veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe, 17th into Takotna. She said she once fired a gun at a moose, but the barrel was so filled with snow, the weapon nearly exploded in her hand.

She also noted an Iditarod where a musher shot a moose on the trail, where it died. No one moved it.

"It was another obstacle in the path," Jonrowe said. "It was a big ba-bump, ba-bump."

Looking at Jonrowe, her lips blackened by frostbite, it is easy to wonder why she is competing in her 27th Iditarod. Sleep deprivation -- Jonrowe has had 3 1/2 hours of sleep since the race started on Sunday -- was causing her to have audio hallucinations. She keeps hearing someone coming up behind her on the trail and calling out her name.

But she said driving her team from Nikolai to McGrath on Tuesday night reminded her of why she loves mushing. The moon was out, she was sipping tea from a thermos and eating waffles, and singing Johnny Cash songs to her dogs as they pulled her along.

"The team was just getting faster and faster and faster and they had a cadence," Jonrowe said. "That trail was gorgeous."

Sixty-seven teams began the race and two teams have scratched. The winner will receive $69,000 and a new truck. Leaders are expected to finish next week.

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