Winner's in, but race far from over

Baltimore musher Dent 350 miles from finish


March 16, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Iditarod Trail sled dog race was winding up yesterday in Nome, Alaska, for three-time champion Doug Swingley and the other top mushers who finished in the money.

But Baltimore musher Dan Dent, and the others with him at the back of the pack, still face more than 350 miles of trail and long, bleak days battling March winds along the Bering Sea.

Dent and his 15 huskies arrived yesterday morning in the Yukon River town of Kaltag. Eight other mushers and their dogs were already there, resting before the 82-mile run over the coastal mountains and down to Unalakleet, on the Bering coast.

Dent was in 67th place, with two more teams somewhere on the trail behind him.

The 58-year-old investment executive was smitten by Alaska and mushing during an adventure vacation in 1995. He has been mushing competitively for three years.

He qualified for the 1999 Iditarod, but his dream of finishing was dashed on the first night. He was badly bitten while trying to break up a fight among his dogs. Forced to withdraw the next day, he wound up in an Anchorage hospital.

His goal this year was simply to finish the race intact, with as many of the 16 dogs he started with as possible. He has dropped just one dog so far.

Dent had one brush with disaster early in the race when his sled struck a tree and his gang line snapped. Fourteen of his 16 dogs went racing on down the trail, leaving Dent, his sled, and two other dogs behind.

After a slow, two-hour trek in the dark, he caught up to the rest of his team. They were waiting for him at a checkpoint five miles down the trail. He has spent the rest of the race making slow but steady progress, slipping at times into last place as weaker teams dropped out.

Dent is too far behind to get much press attention. He reportedly has telephoned his wife and his office in Baltimore a few times, but the only news they have shared is that he is tired. The race began March 4.

His friends were cheered for a time on Tuesday when Dent looked as though he might be overtaking some of his competition. He pulled into the village of Nulato just before 11 p.m. and found six other mushers resting there.

After pausing for barely an hour, he pulled his dogs back onto the trail, headed for Kaltag, 36 miles to the southwest. That decision put him briefly in 61st place.

But by yesterday morning, five of the teams he had passed in Nulato -- including four female mushers who appear to be traveling together -- had passed him on the trail.

Beyond Kaltag, Dent faces an 82-mile run through wooded mountains and then onto the open tundra to Unalakleet, a bleak outpost at the edge of the Bering Sea.

Teams caught in storms en route to Unalakleet can follow trail stakes, and may take refuge in snug log cabins at Tripod Flats and Old Woman. From Unalakleet, the trail turns north along the Bering Sea coast all the way to Nome, 269 miles away. There the teams may encounter high winds, storms and shifting sea ice on a part of the trail that goes off the beach and onto the ice.

The weather in Unalakleet was unusually mild and sunny yesterday, with highs near 30 and lows in the 20s. But there were reports of deep drifts and winds as high as 70 knots along the coast. More windy weather is forecast for today, with snow showers and colder temperatures due tomorrow.

NOTE: Swingley's second straight victory makes him the third musher to successfully defend his title. Susan Butcher had consecutive victories in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Rick Swenson had consecutive victories in 1981 and 1982.

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