ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A cadre of pint-sized cooks stirred pots of moose stew, doled out bowls of spaghetti and prepared grilled cheese sandwiches for dog-tired mushers arriving at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint in the village of Nikolai.
The students at the Top of the Kuskokwim School served food, and if need be, carried it to tables set up in the gymnasium, where a large banner welcomed Iditarod mushers to the village 784 miles from the finish line in Nome.
"We get mushers in throughout the night and usually have two to three people here cooking all night, just to make sure that these mushers who come in at 4 or 5 in the morning, after taking care of their dogs, have something warm to eat," said 16-year-old Phil Runkle, a sophomore who helped organize the school's 17 students for the Iditarod invasion.
It's understandable that the mushers show up bleary-eyed. They've already raced hundreds of miles on the Iditarod Trail before arriving at the Alaska Native village of fewer than 100 people on the Kuskokwim River, about 350 miles from Anchorage.
The race began Sunday with 62 mushers hitting the trail. Rookie James Bardoner was the last musher to arrive in Nikolai on Thursday morning.
"It was so intense," teacher Dorothy Jordan said of the few days when the Iditarod took over the village.
She said the school's two teachers would meet the children down at the checkpoint to start the school day by watching the mushers come in, take care of their dog teams and leave.
Mushers in the 1,150-mile race are required to stop at more than two dozen checkpoints along the trail. The checkpoints are a way for race officials to keep tabs on the teams and give veterinarians a chance to examine the dogs.
The checkpoints also can be an inviting place for mushers to get some shuteye, while also giving the dogs rest on beds of straw.
At the height of the race, the checkpoints are bustling, with planes landing and taking off, dog teams coming and going, and mushers checking in with race officials and greeting friends they haven't seen all year.
Trent Herbst from Ketchum, Idaho, was leading Thursday but had not yet completed a mandatory 24-hour rest. Other front-runners, including four-time defending champion Lance Mackey and four-time champion Martin Buser had satisfied that race requirement.
Herbst was the first musher to reach the checkpoint in the ghost town of Iditarod, about 534 miles from Anchorage. Also into Iditarod were Kelley Griffin, Buser, Hugh Neff, Cim Smyth and Mackey.
From Iditarod, teams travel a desolate section of trail through the hills to the village of Shageluk, 65 miles away. Teams so far have enjoyed a hard and fast trail, but race officials say the pace will slow somewhat because the trail ahead is softer and punchy.
Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion, was withdrawn Thursday after severely injuring his hand while cutting open a bale of straw at the Ophir checkpoint.
A handful of dog teams are exhibiting symptoms of kennel cough. Kennel cough is a highly contagious upper respiratory condition caused by exposure to a virus. Signs of infection — including a dry, hacking cough and sneezing — usually show up two to four days after exposure and can last up to 10 days.
The affected dogs are being treated with antibiotics, and mushers are making sure their dog teams are eating well and getting rest, chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said. Nelson would not say which teams were affected.
Runkle, who has lived his whole life in Nikolai, still gets excited about the arrival of the mushers, along with camera crews, reporters and photographers and tourists arriving by plane.
It's almost like Christmas or Halloween, Runkle said. Every village resident will be down at the checkpoint meeting the mushers, he said.
"It is definitely something that keeps this town alive and on the map," Runkle said.
During the race, the school fills up with visitors camped out in offices and its two classrooms. The mushers have an area to themselves off the gym where they can get some sleep.
After they rest, mushers often spend time talking to people and giving the kids autographs.
Jordan said the Iditarod affords a wonderful teaching opportunity. Last year, the children watched one of the vets examining a dog team. Some of the students were given stethoscopes to listen to the dogs' hearts.
This year, they learned about dog anatomy and animal classification, and practiced their math skills by adding up trail miles.
Michael Dopler, 11, said he likes seeing the dog teams come into the checkpoint and meeting the mushers, especially Mackey.
"He keeps winning, winning and winning," he said.