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Takotna checkpoint is the trail's Iditarod Spa

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TAKOTNA, Alaska - The homemade pies are cooling in the corner, the stereo is playing country music and the griddle is frying up a breakfast of steak and eggs, or just about anything else, trail-weary mushers would want.

For mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Takotna checkpoint is the Iditarod Spa. It's where 72-year-old Jan Newton for decades has been barking at mushers like a mother dog whose pups are acting up.

"What the hell are YOU doing here," Jan says as another exhausted musher with a windburned face enters the community center and sits down at the long mushers' table adorned with a plastic red and white checkered tablecloth. "Just eat and shut up."

No one actually thinks Jan Newton is in a bad mood. Everyone knows she has a heart of gold. She and her husband, Dick, have been providing a home-away-from-home for mushers since 1972.

Jan begins making her Iditarod pies - apple, cherry, pumpkin, blueberry, pecan, banana, lemon, coconut, chocolate, pecan and butterscotch - in mid-January. Then she has to find a place to hide the more than 100 pies from her husband and his friends.

"Reliving their youth," she says of her 77-year-old husband's plan to hop on snowmobiles on Friday with two buddies and travel to Nome and the Iditarod finish line about 1,126 kilometres away.

"He ain't giving up," she said, when asked about the wisdom of an old man setting off by snowmobile on the Iditarod trail, "not as long as I can keep going."

Dick, known for his trapping skills (he just sent off 35 marten pelts), came to Takotna from Clayton, Idaho, in 1970, where he and Jan ran a cafe, hotel and bar that catered to miners. Jan followed two years later.

A friend, Dorothy Anderson, also called "Puddens," got the Iditarod Spa going by suggesting the two make a few meals for the mushers. At that time, Takotna wasn't even an Iditarod checkpoint.

"The mushers would stop to eat moose meat stew and chili. That is why we have those up all the time," Jan said, pointing to a counter running along one wall of the community center with three large stock pots.

Anderson pretty much left Jan to her own devices four years later and "you can see how that went," Jan says. "Things just grew."

"If you come in and ask for something and we didn't have it, we had it the next year," she said.

Musher Sven Haltmann, competing in his second Iditarod, enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, a sausage patty and potatoes on Thursday.

"It recharges the batteries," he said. "You can just come in here and say I'm hungry and within 10 minutes they have food on your table. ... It has always been great."

Haltmann said mushers sleep in the church where there is a heater for drying out wet clothing. Many of them sleep under the pews.

Most of the mushers this year chose Takotna to satisfy one of the race requirements, taking a 24-hour break. Mushers can take the 24 anywhere along the 1,770-kilometre trail but Takotna is hard to pass up, even in a good trail year.

This year, the trail up ahead is said to be tough-going. Snowmobiles recently cleared it of yet more snow but it had not "set" yet, meaning it likely would be a slow slog on a soft trail.

Ryan Redington, the 26-year-old grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr., in his sixth race, described his slice of banana creme pie as "very good."

Redington put in another order as he prepared to hook up his dog team and leave - two double cheeseburgers for the road.

"It is unbelievable what they do for us," said musher Bill Cotter as he sat down to a breakfast of medium-rare steak, eggs over easy and wheat toast.

Cotter, who is running in his 20th Iditarod, said what he likes most is the way the checkpoint takes care of his dogs. The operation is efficient, he said. That means mushers don't have to waste valuable time toting water and bales of straw - time when their dogs could be resting.

It's all right there for them when they pull in.

In other checkpoints, that can take two hours. In Takotna, it takes a cool 35 minutes.

"It is really what you have is a little oasis in the wilderness," he said.

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