After days of heating up meals in boiling water used to make gravy for the dogs and snacking on energy bars or chunks of meat, the first musher to reach the village of Anvik along the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race earned quite a treat.
Four-time champion Martin Buser, of Big Lake, kept his lead and pulled into the checkpoint at 2:08 a.m. Friday for the seven-course meal. It was a prize for reaching the first checkpoint along the 1,800-mile long Yukon River, which will be the trail for mushers for the next 238 miles of the 1,000-mile race.
The Millennium Alaskan Hotel Anchorage flew its chef 350 miles to the remote Alaska village of 82 people. Executive Chef Bobby Sidro had to overcome his fear of small planes to make the journey to the Athabascan subsistence village, where locals grow their own vegetables, fish for salmon, and hunt moose and black bear for meat. There's no restaurant in town.
"I got to use mostly a portable stove with a little propane (tank) because I think there's nothing there," said Sidro, a 42-year-old native of the Philippines.
Buser took the race lead when he was the first musher to leave the checkpoint in the ghost town of Iditarod at 2 p.m. Thursday.
Nearly a dozen mushers had followed him out of Iditarod by Thursday night. All have completed their mandatory 24-hour layovers.
Running second on Friday was last year's runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, of Two Rivers. Nicolas Petit, of Girdwood, followed Zirkle four minutes later and rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Roros, Norway, left within a half hour in fourth place.
The winner is expected to arrive in the old gold town of Nome, on the state's western coast, early next week.
Buser, in claiming the First to the Yukon award in Anvik, about 80 miles from Iditarod, or about 10 hours away for a team averaging 8 mph, was served a meal that would cost him $99 at the hotel restaurant.
It included a starter of portobello mushrooms stuffed with Red King crab, Alaska clam chowder, a roast duck salad, a 14-ounce drunken rib eye and a fruit tart for dessert.
"Everybody just stands around and watches" the chef prepare the meal, said Christine Elswick, the secretary for the Anvik Tribal Council.
There are two more gifts for the first musher: $3,500, served on a gold pan, but all in single $1 bills, and a bottle of champagne.
"The entire meal is pretty incredible, and to top it all off, we call the bottle of Dom Perignon the 'after-dinner mint,'" said Carol Fraser, the hotel's general manager.
Zirkle and her husband, Allen Moore, the winner of this year's Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, say they go all-out on their dogs' food but not their own, preferring to eat homemade oatmeal energy bars, meat snacks and freeze-dried dinners shipped to the trail beforehand.
"You wouldn't want to eat what we eat for nine or 10 days," she said.
Associated Press writer Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report.