TAKOTNA, Alaska (AP) – A 61-year-old rookie Iditarod musher turned up on the wrong trail Thursday, hours after race officials started to search for the woman thought lost along a treacherous stretch.

Deborah Bicknell of Juneau was spotted from the air driving her team through Ptarmigan Pass, a route formerly used in the race, said race spokesman Chas St. George.

“It appears she took the wrong trail,” St. George said.

She was seen driving her dog team 18 miles from the Rohn checkpoint.

“That would be a pretty good indication that she’s all right,” St. George said.

Sandy Bicknell, the musher’s husband, was with Iditarod officials in Anchorage when he received the news that she had been spotted. He had no other information other than what the pilot had relayed.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

He heard varying estimates of how many extra miles Deborah Bicknell had mushed by taking the wrong trail, but said it was at least 50 miles.

He planned to rendezvous with his wife in McGrath, he said, “if I can get there fast enough to see her there.”

The Iditarod race marshal has the authority to remove mushers from the race if they are out of the competition, but St. George said reaching the Rohn checkpoint would indicate Bicknell was still able to race.

Another musher also mistakenly took the Ptarmigan trail in the race.

Musher Aliy Zirkle, 37, of Two Rivers said a lot of the teams went the wrong way out of Rainy Pass because one of the trail markers got knocked down.

She said she was among them, losing 1½ hours of run time and forcing her to rest her team longer. In all, she estimates the mistake cost her three hours Tuesday.

An aerial search was started for Bicknell after she failed to show up at Rohn. Bicknell was last seen at 9:12 a.m. Wednesday, leaving the Rainy Pass checkpoint, 224 miles into the race from Anchorage to Nome, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers.

The search for Bicknell included an Alaska State Troopers helicopter and two planes affiliated with the race.

It was not immediately known if she carried any tracking device or two-way communications, but for her to do so would have required prior approval from race officials.

Rainy Pass Lodge is 1,835 feet above sea level and mushers climb another 1,325 feet in the 48-mile leg to Rohn, the sixth of 24 checkpoints along the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

According to Iditarod officials, the climb is gentle but the terrain is barren except for a few willow thickets. Wind packs the snow hard and the trail often is icy.

After crossing a lake, the trail climbs to the summit, then starts a steep descent along Dalzell Creek. The creek runs to the Tatina River and continues about five miles to the Rohn checkpoint.

Concern for Bicknell was heightened after numerous mushers suffered broken bones and busted sleds along that part of the Iditarod trail.

Veteran mushers say conditions this year – with icy trails, little fresh snow, bare ground – are some of the worst they have ever seen.

Paul Gebhardt said his sled would not go on the bare tundra, so he was forced to walk up the hills, get back in, and then get out again for the next rise.

Gebhardt reported that five-time winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, who is competing in his 31st Iditarod, said the trail this year was just about as bad as it gets.

“Swenson says he’s seen it worst. But he says it matches right up there with the worst,” Gebhardt said. “It seems it’s the worst to me.”

Mitch Seavey, who won the race in 2004, said it’s been a tough race. “If you actually think this is fun, you have a problem.”

Eighty-two teams started the race Sunday in Willow; since then, 15 mushers have withdrawn, with many citing either poor trail conditions or weather. The winner usually arrives in Nome nine or 10 days after the start.

As far as the race was concerned Thursday, there was little movement among the leaders. Eight mushers were at the Iditarod checkpoint, the halfway point of 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

Lance Mackey arrived at 12:11 a.m. Thursday, followed six minutes later by Gebhardt. Two other mushers came after 6 a.m., Ed Iten and Seavey, and Tollef Monson and Cim Smyth arrived about two hours later. All appeared to be taking their 24-hour mandatory rest period. Two four-time champions, Martin Buser and Jeff King, arrived at Iditarod within minutes of each other Thursday afternoon.

Associated Press Writers Dan Joling and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-08-07 2258EST

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