Eighty-one mushers drive their dogs on a short ride out of downtown Anchorage this morning to start the 28th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome.
Must be spring.
Even though the 81 may soon be riding runners into the teeth of winter, the Iditarod has become a sign of spring.
Never mind the temperatures or the snow. If the weather is clear, there will be long days of blazing blue sky and sun warm enough to nap under. Not ideal for dogs - except in rest, when they'll stretch those aching limbs on beds of straw and let sunlight soothe their muscles as they sleep.
If nights are clear and cold, that's when many mushers will cover most of their trail miles.
Nature could throw the teams a wicked curve, maybe more than one: wet, miserable snow in Southcentral or bitter wind on the Yukon River or ground blizzards on Norton Bay ice. Maybe all of the above. But somewhere along the trail, even with snow still deep and river ice thick, there likely will be that sense of winter yielding, the pleasure of standing in the sun with no parka or jacket, the need to reach for sunglasses.
Sweet time, even for bone-tired mushers.
Maybe they'll only have a minute of it. Most will have their hands, hearts and minds full of trail work. Some will deal with misery - ailing dogs, their own injuries, dreams riddled with disappointment. It's all part of the trip. The late Joe Redington Sr. didn't found a cakewalk. He made an adventure.
And what an adventure. Those who catch the fever - and they're not all mushers - may find the fever never quite breaks. For about two weeks in March, the fever rules. The late pilot Ace Dodson once stood in McGrath during the race and smiled when someone asked him what was going on back in Anchorage.
"What difference does it make?" he said.
Joe Redington Sr. is gone now. He died in June at 82 and was buried in a sled. His is the No. 1 bib as one of the honorary mushers, an honor shared with Edgar Nollner and John E. Schultz. No one would have complained if No. 1 had been reserved for Joe Redington alone this year. But the company makes more sense. The old man was never exclusive.
Trailworn, sleepless mushers often hallucinate, especially at night. They see wolves, dogs, people, lights, buildings. 1980 Iditarod champion Joe May once spoke of talking with long-dead mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.
So no one should be surprised if this year some musher gets lost deep in the heart of the race, and tells of a midnight conversation with Joe Redington Sr., who showed him the way back to the trail.