There's no place like Nome

Canadian musher Hans Gatt looks at one of his dogs as Allaryce Agloinga, 10, left, and Anna Prentice, 10, wait for his autograph as he takes a mandatory 8 hours break in the White Mountain, Alaska checkpoint. <i>Associated?Press</i>

NOME, Alaska - This old gold rush town is almost ready for the grand finale of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. About all that's left is to see whose dogs arrive first.

The burled arch that marks the end of the 1,100-mile trek has been moved to Front Street from its usual storage place behind City Hall. The first musher was due to cross the finish line Tuesday night or early Wednesday.

The front-runners are the last two men to win the Iditarod - Lance Mackey of Fairbanks and four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park.

"It's a two-way race. Right now it looks like either Jeff or Lance, but a lot of things can happen," said Dale Myers, a longtime volunteer who was hanging Iditarod sponsor banners along the snow-packed chute leading to the finish line.

Mackey was the first musher Tuesday into the checkpoint at White Mountain, 77 miles from the end in Nome. He arrived with 11 dogs at 8:53 a.m. Tuesday, followed at 9:50 a.m. by King and his full team of 16 dogs. All mushers are required to take an eight-hour break in White Mountain, meaning the winner wouldn't reach Nome until early Wednesday morning.

Hans Gatt, a three-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race winner from Whitehorse, Yukon, was in third place. He was followed by Ken Anderson of Fairbanks and Ramey Smyth of Willow.

Half the top 10 racers on Tuesday morning were previous champions, including 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward and Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the race's only five-time winner.

The top 30 finishers will get a piece of the $875,000 purse. The winner gets $69,000 and a $45,000 truck.

Last year, Mackey became the first musher to record back-to-back wins in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Mackey also won his fourth consecutive Quest last month and is trying to repeat last year's double win.

In Nome's small convention center, volunteers from across the nation staffed tables heaped with souvenirs. Others hung welcome flags with mushers' names.

Outside, more volunteers were busy sorting bales of straw and bags of dog food forwarded by mushers for their teams. There were chains to line up in tight rows, where dog teams will be rigged up and tended to after mushers cross the finish line.

Kathleen Zwolak, a longtime volunteer from Wadsworth, Ill., was coordinating dog lot preparations. She's also had other dog-care duties in the race. She hasn't had much time to keep tabs on the competition.

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