ON THE SAWBILL TRAIL - Musher Nathan Schroeder rode tall into the checkpoint at the Sawbill Trail north of Tofte on Tuesday morning. His dogs' heads were up and tails wagging, and the complex arithmetic of sled dog racing was working in Schroeder's favor as he pursued a record-tying fourth victory in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
The 38-year-old pride of Warba was feeling loose and in a mood to joke.
"I'm going to go through," he announced shortly after his team of 13 dogs pulled alongside a crackling trailside fire. Heartbeats skipped all around him. "No. No. I'm joking."
A gallery of wellwishers erupted in laughter.
"That's the best joke of the whole Beargrease," said Traci Ellingson, who was happy to have been a part of it. The word among the armchair mushers had been that - while they didn't have to - the marathon participants would all be resting when they got to the Sawbill Trail on Tuesday morning.
Ellingson is a volunteer race timer with a common Timex stopwatch strapped to her wrist. The South Dakotan was among the sled dog nomads who used vacation days to travel to this remote spot so they could camp in the pines and soak up the race.
"I get to unplug up here," Ellingson said.
"I do this because I like to winter camp and I like dogs," said Brian Fournier of Lakeville, Minn.
Annually, the tight-knit enthusiasts meet the teams going out on opening day Sunday and greet them coming home two days later - this year, 280 miles into a 383-mile race.
"You do this long enough and you learn that events like this attract the same people," said Mike Knuth, a semi-retired chemist from Duluth. "There is a community of us."
Between peak race times at the checkpoint, the "Sawbillies" said they liked to snowshoe and ski. They come from ice fishing backgrounds and enjoy snowmobiling.
"We've got the Temperance River right nearby," Knuth said. "It's gorgeous."
Defending champion Ryan Anderson of Ray was the first musher into the Sawbill checkpoint - the first of three final checkpoints leading to the finish line Wednesday at Billy's Bar in Rice Lake. In reality, Anderson trailed Schroeder and Canadian Jason Campeau for still needing to put in more of the race's 28 total hours of required rest. Anderson would have to idle 1 hour, 48 minutes longer than Schroeder over the course of the final day - amounting to an imposing gap between the competitors. Campeau was about an hour back of Schroeder.
" 'I do not have nearly enough time to explain this to you,' " Ellingson tells her friends who ask about sled dog timing.
But watching the clock is a pastime that consumes the insiders around the fire, including Fournier, who said, "I can't hit 'refresh' fast enough; it's refresh, refresh, refresh," whenever he's in range of an Internet signal and the online GPS tracking of the race.
Following Anderson, Schroeder and Campeau, past Beargrease champion Keith Aili of Ray and Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors settled their teams under a canopy of spruce and taller pines. All the 10 remaining marathon mushers had reached the Sawbill Trail by 5:30 p.m., with several - led by Schroeder - already on the trail to Finland and beyond.
Prior to the arrival of afternoon clouds, the morning sun fired the treetops and cast the resting teams in light and shadow. Mushers worked quietly and low to the hay-covered ground, checking the health of the dogs' feet.
Nearby along hard-packed foot trails were Knuth's white canvas tent and a host of others tied to wooden stakes in the snow. A chimnied wood stove radiated heat inside and carried out smoke. Knuth showed how he had baked blueberry muffins and onion bread atop his stove.
"There's no bottom so the heat comes right up," he said, lifting the portable stovetop oven.
Gathered together, the race talk turned to musher Jennifer Freking, and how the Ely veterinarian was spreading the ashes along the North Shore State Trail of longtime volunteer Frank Bishop, who lived to 90 and spent a quarter of his life dedicated to the race before his passing last year.
"He could stay up later than any of the rest of us," Ellingson said. "He would tell us stories until 1 a.m. It was a Beargrease education."
By mid-morning, it was Schroeder teaching the latest Beargrease lesson.
Campeau's handler, Jake Berkowitz, milled about the festive scene at Sawbill Trail. A five-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog racer himself, he sold his dog team to Campeau.
"You could say I'm emotionally invested," he said, "just not financially invested anymore."
He liked that Campeau was quickening his pace with each stage, but he had also done the hard math. Berkowitz was nearly ready to offer a concession to Schroeder.
"Nathan has a chance to hold us off," he said. "An hour is a long time. He could lose 10 minutes at each checkpoint and still have a half-hour lead."