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WILLOW -- Each of the 66 mushers leaving the starting chute at Sunday's official Iditarod race start carried items required by race officials to get them to Nome: an axe, at least 12 but no more than 16 sled dogs, a sleeping bag, a pot to boil water and snowshoes.
But in parkas and sleds, mushers squirreled away talismans, good luck charms and reminders of why a person would choose to run sled dogs nearly a thousand miles through raw and treacherous Alaska wilderness: Snickers bars, ashes of beloved departed dogs, a silver bell to ward off unfriendly spirits, a cross made of ivory.
The mushers and their dog teams began a 975-mile journey to Nome Sunday afternoon at Willow Lake, in the heartland of Southcentral Alaska mushing country. First out was Knik musher Ray Redington Jr., whose grandfather, Joe Redington, is known as the "Father of the Iditarod." Cheered on by picture-snapping crowds that lined the chute, mushers headed southwest from the lake through birch and spruce forests that give way to rolling hills near the Susitna River and on to the first checkpoint in Yentna Station Roadhouse. From there, they would continue north and west across the Susitna Valley and into the Alaska Range.
They face a trail and conditions so unpredictable that, as even the official race guide puts it, a single stretch can "alternate between beautifully easy and unbelievably hideous."
This year, they mush the "Northern Route" trail, which sweeps through a vast and varied array of Alaskan landscape -- from monotonous tundra to the Alaska Range, from the paper-flat Yukon River to the shifting sea ice of Norton Sound.
Before mushers left on Sunday, they were still mulling a last-minute announcement by race officials reversing a controversial decision to scrap the Happy River Steps, a sled-wrecking, bone-breaking section of the trail, for a gentler alternative.
Snow and trail conditions make the notorious steps a safer route, race marshals said Saturday.
Some mushers, such as rookie Travis Cooper, who's from Kansas but trains in Big Lake, said they were happy to have the chance to take on the steps, a staircase of steep switchbacks.
"I was a little bummed by the thought of not getting to do it," Cooper said.
Musher Kelley Griffin of Wasilla said that the heavy snow should make the steps less daunting.
"There's enough snow for it to be a pillowy ride down," she said.
While nearly all of what Iditarod mushers pack in their sleds is functional, some find room for a few meaningful extra bits of cargo.
Cooper will carry worn photos of paddling trips he's taken in the Southwest, as a way to "create warm thoughts." He also packs Snickers bars (not his favorite, but high-calorie and satisfying) and an iPod loaded with bluegrass and hip-hop, which he tends to listen to in the middle of the night.
Some, like Tok's Hugh Neff and Jodi Bailey of Chatanika, carry gifts from friends and fans.
Bailey has a small silver bell, hung on a heavy-duty halibut line, given to her by a motorcycle-riding Texas friend. The bell is supposed to "annoy evil spirits," she said.
"It's so all the goblins drop off my sled," she said.
Yukon Quest champion Neff carries his signature Dr. Seuss paraphernalia, related to his literacy promotion partnership with NEA-Alaska, along with an earring and sage from fans.
And then there's self-dubbed "Mushing Mortician" Scott Janssen, back for his second Iditarod this year. He carries "a bunch" of iPod shuffles stacked with music and books on tape, specifically Stephen King.
Yes, the mortician will spent long solo hours deep in the isolated Alaska wilderness listening to horror classics like "The Shining," "It" and "The Stand."
He is also carrying what he calls "cremated remains." Some are of a beloved dog he still chokes up talking about, Thunder. Others are of a human "lifelong dog lover" who was, upon her death, cremated and mixed with the remains of 12 of her Siberian huskies. It was her wish to have some of her remains scattered along the Iditarod trail, he said. He plans to stop at the approach to Rohn, which he considers the most beautiful part of the trail, read a poem and scatter the ashes.
Eureka musher Brent Sass, a Yukon Quest veteran mushing his first Iditarod, will haul a cardboard cutout the size of a large pizza that bears the face of a favorite dog, Silver, who can't mush with the team due to a shoulder injury. Six of Silver's sons are on the team.
Sass is also an iPod man. He favors listening to quotable movies like Caddyshack and The Big Lebowski along with the occasional rendition of the rousing bluegrass anthem "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show when things hit a lull.
"I basically say the movies to the dogs," he said.
The most unexpected gift belongs to Pat Moon.
While training in the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet this winter, Chicago native Moon became friendly with a handyman who frequently came by to try to unclog his drain. They exchanged a few words each day.
When it came time for Moon to leave, the handyman pulled him aside and presented him with a small, finely-carved ivory cross that had been in his family for generations.
When times get tough, the man instructed Moon, squeeze the cross and say "Jesus" three times.
The encounter stuck with Moon, who has cancer and is attempting the Iditarod for the second time after crashing early on in the 2010 race. This year, he wants to make it back to his stormy adopted village on the Bering Sea coast, where his dogs, his late mentor Paul Johnson and his even sled hail from.
"I'm carrying Unalakleet with me," he said.