ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It's more than 1,000 miles over the harshest terrain in Alaska. The Iditarod sled dog race is well underway. The race leaders are about halfway done. But far behind them, a group of rookies is just trying to finish in one piece. Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt caught up with them in the mountains 100 miles northwest of Anchorage.
ANNIE FEIDT: Lou Packer looks like your typical rugged Alaskan outdoorsman. He's even wearing an intimidating camo snow suit, but he doesn't sounds like one when he starts cooing about his dogs.
Dr. LOU PACKER: Sugar cookie dog. Hey, Hobs. Hob dog. Hob dog, here. Hobs is part nincompoop. It's terrible.
FEIDT: On a normal day, Dr. Packer would be running an urgent care clinic in Wasilla. But today he's adding up his multiple bruises and considering himself lucky to have made it this far.
Dr. PACKER: Just terribly steep terrain. You can't - you don't know where you're going, I mean, it's, whoosh. The dogs - when the dogs go downhill, they accelerate. And you're just roaring down these things at, like, breakneck speeds. It's pretty amazing.
FEIDT: Fourteen rookie mushers are making their way to Nome, more than 100 miles behind the race leaders. They're spending about two weeks running their dogs day and night, camping in the cold when they need rest. By the time it's over, they will have mushed over mountain ranges, up frozen rivers and along the icy Bering Sea coast.
Kim Darst is a helicopter pilot from New Jersey. She just arrived at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. It's an isolated outpost on a snow-covered lake nestled between high peaks. She settles her dogs in for a well-earned rest, then takes a metal bucket over to a small water hole cut into the frozen lake.
Ms. KIM DARST: This might be the most exciting part.
(Soundbite of metal bucket)
FEIDT: Darst has been dreaming about the Iditarod for a decade and says it's thrilling to finally be here.
Ms. DARST: I can't believe it. I'm sitting here on the trail, and I don't think it's sunk in yet.
FEIDT: Twenty-two-year-old Jen Seavey is one of the youngest rookies on the trail. She crouches down in the snow to put tiny booties on her dogs' feet.
Ms. JEN SEAVEY: Put some boots on. You ready to go mushing?
(Soundbite of grunting)
Ms. SEAVEY: Not so much?
FEIDT: Her dogs look like they would prefer to keep napping, but Seavey is bright-eyed.
Ms. SEAVEY: I don't know. I'm just - I'm not tired, and I'm enjoying it and looking forward to each run. It's really cool.
FEIDT: Dr. Lou Packer also seems to be having a good time. He even jokes about the potential danger.
Dr. PACKER: No one's ever - no musher has ever died doing this. Of course my wife's convinced I'll be the first one to get that dubious honor.
FEIDT: Packer looks down and frowns at his overstuffed sled. It has a classic rookie bulge on top - bursting with a lot of unnecessary gear, like two sleeping bags. But he says he's intent on surviving this experience and some of that extra stuff might come in handy.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt.
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