Three major dramas unfolded at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race before it even got under way Saturday morning.
Charlie Boulding told friends this will be his last Iditarod. The folksy Boulding, with his long, gray braids and twinkling eyes, is one of the most popular mushers in the business.
Martin Buser, the four-time champ who accidentally lopped off half of his right middle finger last week with a table saw, nursed that injured hand right up to race start at 10 a.m.
And 20-year-old rookie Oregon musher Rachael Scdoris made history as the Iditarod's first legally blind musher, staying busy and professional -- despite at least two TV crews filming every move for national audiences.
The trio of stories unfolded with little fanfare amid the usual carnival atmosphere of the ceremonial start that this year drew as many as 8,000 onlookers, according to Anchorage fire marshal Bridget Bushue. On a sunny 35-degree morning, dogs yipped and howled in their harnesses, fans mobbed DeeDee Jonrowe for autographs and vendors hawked crab bisque and T-shirts.
Seventy-nine mushers, including six race champs, readied for the noncompetitive 11-mile trek to Campbell Airstrip. The real race restarts today in Willow.
Boulding had hinted earlier that this might be his last Iditarod, but standing alongside his team before the ceremonial start Saturday morning, he made his intentions clear.
This is the last one.
"I've decided," he said. And there won't be any second thoughts, he added. "I don't go around making brash statements that I don't back up."
He's selling his team when he gets to Nome, he said, but keeping a yard full of puppies, perhaps even to race in shorter events in the Lower 48.
The decision to quit long-distance racing has been percolating for a few years, Boulding said. He's now 62. His knees ache and his back hurts. He slipped off a four-wheeler earlier this season and it ran over his foot.
"I hurt the one good joint I had," he quipped.
But an event late in last year's race -- when Boulding was recovering from colon cancer -- also factored into his decision to leave competitive distance mushing. Just a few hours behind the race leaders, he stopped for a quick nap in Elim. He woke two hours later, having slipped from fourth place to sixth. The extra sleep cost him some $10,000.
"It made me see the handwriting on the wall," he said.
Still, the two-time Yukon Quest winner with a dozen Iditarods under his belt said he's entering this year's race to win.
Afterward, he and his wife, Robin, are off to Mexico for a two-week vacation before returning to Alaska. They aren't leaving their Yukon River homestead outside of Manley Hot Springs but have already bought a 32-foot sailboat in the British Virgin Islands and plan to start spending a month or two Outside every year.
Boulding may start volunteering with the Iditarod Trail Committee to help keep the race strong.
"Maybe I should give something back," he said. " I'm not the kind of guy who takes and never gives anything back."
As Boulding pondered his last Iditarod, Buser prepared for what looks to be his most grueling.
Two hours before the 10 a.m. start time Saturday, the Big Lake musher sat in the passenger seat of his pickup, right hand suspended in a makeshift sling fashioned from a ski hat tied to a hook in the truck's ceiling.
Buser, an avid woodworker, was using a circular saw on a project Tuesday night when he caught the fingers of his right hand. A doctor in Anchorage amputated his middle finger above the first knuckle.
Following doctor's orders Saturday morning, he was keeping the hand elevated. He tended to his dogs with the hand tucked into his vest but later waved freely at fans along the race course.
A splint holds the three outside fingers on Buser's hand together, protecting the injured digit but allowing thumb and forefinger movement, essential for dog care.
The musher said he and his doctor went with a splint rather than a cast, "which might be better for working," because Buser needs to be able to check the finger regularly for infection or other problems.
Fan after fan leaned over the snow fence separating mushers from sidewalk crowds and asked about the hand.
No, Buser said, he wasn't looking for the attention the injury brought.
"It was not a deliberate act," he said.
A few blocks away, Scdoris was getting plenty of attention, like it or not. CNN was there. And a Chugiak-based film crew was shooting video and sound for future NBC national shows, including a Dateline special on the Iditarod rookie, already a celebrity for her good looks and a public relations campaign spearheaded by her father, Jerry.
Scdoris fitted booties onto her team, working silently without looking up.
She will run her dogs with help from a sighted assistant, Paul Ellering, on another sled just in front of her, warning of low-hanging branches, moose or other trail hazards.
Amid the fuss of Saturday morning, the unknown difficulties on the trail ahead seemed preferable to the mayhem that has surrounded Scodoris for the past year.
At least it will be quiet.
"I'm just looking forward to getting out there," she said, still deftly placing booties on dog paws. "Hopefully it's a little more peaceful."
Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.