Tailgate party sends Iditarod on the way

March 5, 2011 

Think of Saturday's ceremonial start of the 2011 Iditarod as the tailgate party of the "last great race."

It doesn't influence the game any, but there's plenty of hot dogs and Pabst Blue Ribbon and snowballing anticipation for what's to come.

A few notes from the sidelines as a parade of 16-dog teams navigated snow-packed city streets and trails, launching the 39th running of the Iditarod:

BORN TO RUN

Straight from a Hollywood script comes the story of Marlon and Brando.

Wheel dogs for Talkeetna musher Heather Siirtola, Marlon and Brando are in the Iditarod because of the Iditarod.

Back in 2007, Siirtola and her team were waiting for their turn to race down Fourth Avenue for the ceremonial start when Fast Eddy and Minnie put on a little pre-race show.

"I thought the female was out of heat, because she'd been in heat for three weeks," Siirtola said. "Well, she surprised me. She snuck one in there, and so did he. With a lot of people taking pictures."

From that union came Marlon, who is black with a white bib, and Brando, who is brown and white.

Siirtola, who's racing in her fourth Iditarod, has a number of dogs with Hollywood-inspired names because, with the exception of Brando, many of the dogs she has raised are black and white.

"So I named them after black-and-white movie stars," said Siirtola, whose kennel also includes Bogart, Hepburn and Monroe.

BEER ME

Mushers and Idita-riders are always treated to a free lunch along the 11-mile route to Campbell Airstrip. This year fans handed foil-wrapped hotdogs, assorted baked goods, bottles of water and, in one case, cans of PBR to passing competitors.

SPLITTING THE VOTE

Lisa Murkowski didn't just sit on the fence when asked to name her favorite musher Saturday. The U.S. senator took up long-term residency on it.

"I'm rooting for Lance (Mackey) because I would love for him to make history with his string of wins. I'm rooting for John Baker because I love John Baker, and he was so close last year, and he so thought he was going to make it and then he had that terrible issue on the trail. I'm rooting for DeeDee (Jonrowe) because I adore DeeDee, and I root for DeeDee every year, and I so believe in her and how she has, through personal issues and all that she has dealt with, she has the strength of an individual that is just beyond comparison. As a strong Alaskan woman, I love strong Alaskan women. I love the fact that Aliy Zirkle, she's on the outside, but she could perhaps make something happen this year. I adore Martin Buser (too)," she said.

WINNER'S JACKET

Even at remote Campbell Airstrip, the end of the line for Saturday's run, fans clamored for Mackey, pressing from behind an orange plastic fence as the musher signed autographs. Among the posters: "Cinco de Mackey: Sir Lance-a-Lot."

One of Mackey's leaders, Maple, ran the Anchorage route wearing the "Golden Harness" she won in 2010.

FREE AGENTS

"I'd love to finish top 20, but the competition is out of control," said Wyoming musher Billy Snodgrass, who pulled muffin crumbs from the pocket of his parka after finishing the ceremonial run through Anchorage.

There may be fewer teams this year, he said -- 62 mushers are starting the race, compared with 71 in 2010 -- but the top dogs are back.

Literally. Just because a musher didn't return to the Iditarod doesn't mean his or her strongest dogs aren't running with a different team.

"You can bet that some of Jeff King's dogs from last year are on someone's team. They're not sitting at home on a chain," Snodgrass said of last year's third-place finisher.

Although he's finished three Iditarods, Snodgrass has never raced on the southern route that mushers take in odd-numbered years. It's known for punishing headwinds along the Yukon River, Snodgrass said. "You go to places where no one goes except (on the) Iditarod."

A SMALLER FIELD

Martin Buser, a four-time champion and the record holder for fastest finish, said the smaller-than-usual field of mushers was "a sign of the times."

"You want to make sure that the sport doesn't die, but we have a lot of young people coming up," Buser said. "Hopefully the Iditarod (Trail Committee) sees the wisdom in lowering the entry fee next year a little bit. They're talking about it and there's a pretty strong rumor that they'll reduce the entry fee a little bit."

This year's trail was rumored to be a fast one, Buser said.

"But, you know, all that can change," he said. "A storm or a little bit of a blow can obliterate the trail, and we'll be breaking it back out. So we'll see, we'll have to deal with it as it comes."

Hans Gatt, who finished second in last year's Iditarod, likes the smaller field.

"There's just not as much going on, and the banquet was quicker," he said. "It's going to be better in the checkpoints, not as hectic in the beginning."

FIRST DUDE'S A FAN

The former First Dude of Alaska, Todd Palin, was spotted walking down Fourth Avenue wearing a seal skin hat and shades with a small entourage in tow.

"It's always a treat for any Alaskan to be down here and talk to mushers and listen to what their strategy is," said Palin, who recently finished second in the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race across Alaska. "They can probably give me a head's up on the trail conditions."

Palin said he'd been to quite a few Iditarod starts. The most memorable was when he rode through Anchorage in Martin Buser's sled.

"Sarah was weathered in in Juneau, and I was able to fill her shoes that day," Palin said.

EXTREMITIES

Rookie Nicolas Petit of Girdwood is running with Chugiak veteran Jim Lanier's dogs. Lanier placed 24th last year at age 69 but withdrew from this year's Iditarod. Most of the team has been to Nome more than once, Petit said.

The rookie stood by his dog truck, quiet as he waited for the ceremonial start. "This is the stressful part," he said. "So much stuff going on."

Scottish musher Wattie McDonald and his dog handlers wore traditional kilts for the start, and at least two of them -- Barry McWilliam and Gordon Ross from Aberdeen, Scotland -- went mostly barelegged.

The temperature hung in single digits as the start time approached. The pair said they weren't cold at all.

The key is keeping your core warm and the extremities follow, Ross said.

"They follow, or they fall off," he added.

BARROOM WITH A VIEW

Ducking into Darwin's Theory provided respite from the cold but not from the downtown crowds. The bar was elbow-to-elbow from the time it open at 10 a.m. and promised to remain rockin' all day and all night, because once the dogs cleared out of downtown, the reindeer would arrive.

The first Saturday in March is one of the busiest days of the year for the G Street bar, said owner Darwin Biwer.

"It's definitely our longest day," he said, thanks to the morning's Iditarod festivities and the afternoon's Running of the Reindeer madness.

G Street serves as a staging area for dog teams, so there's always mushers, dogs and fans right in front of Darwin's. People were waiting to get in when the bar opened, Biwer said: "You can see the noseprints on the windows."


Read Iditarod Live, the Daily News sled blog, at www.adn.com/iditarodlive. Twitter updates: twitter.com/iditarodlive. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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