ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A familiar face is leading the Iditarod, and an up-and-coming musher has been disqualified.
Aliy Zirkle was the first musher to leave the checkpoint at Tanana, and was traveling down the Yukon River on the race’s longest stretch between checkpoints. The next checkpoint is in Ruby, 119 miles from Tanana.
She left Tanana, an Athabascan community of 240 residents who live a subsistence lifestyle and located 130 miles west of Fairbanks, just after 10 p.m. Tuesday with all 16 dogs on her team.
She was followed eight minutes later by veteran musher Aaron Burmeister of Nome.
Tanana is near the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, and is 227 miles into this year’s weather-changed route for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The winner of the world’s most famous sled dog race is expected under the burled arch in Nome, on the western coast, early next week.
Third out of Tanana was four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, who left at 11:15 p.m. Tuesday. Buser has taken one of his mandatory rest stops.
Musher Brent Sass, who last month won the thousand-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, was disqualified Tuesday because the Iditarod race marshal said he had a two-way communications device with him. Mushers are not allowed to have contact with anyone during the race.
Marshal Mark Nordman removed Sass after finding the iPod Touch, which is Wi-Fi capable and could have been used to communicate at checkpoints.
“He went, ‘Oh my God, what a mistake.’ You know, an emotional time for him,” Nordman told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after Sass was disqualified. “Just a mistake. Do I believe Brent was trying to gain a competitive advantage in the race? Absolutely not. That’s my personal opinion.”
Sass took full responsibility. “It’s a complete screw-up on my part,” he said in a video interview posted on the Iditarod website.
Sass said he brought the device, similar to an iPhone without a phone function, to listen to music and watch movies while he was on the trail. It didn’t register that the device could be hooked into a wireless network at a checkpoint to communicate to the outside world, he said.
“I had no intention of using the Wi-Fi,” he said.
“I have to accept the consequences,” an emotional Sass said. “I want to apologize to my fellow mushers, my fans, my supporters, my family, my friends, my dogs, especially.”
A field of 78 mushers began the trek Monday from Fairbanks to the old gold-rush town of Nome. Seventy-seven teams remain in the race.
The race usually kicks off in Willow, but a lack of snow led organizers to move the start farther north to Fairbanks on Monday.