WILLOW — WILLOW -- Dog handlers smiled and laughed while Martin Buser's dogs jumped and yelped, straining to make the official start of the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on a slightly overcast day at Willow Lake on Sunday.
When his lead dog Flash finally got the green light, Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion making his 30th start, was also smiling. He was the first musher to cruise down the snowy runway between a parted sea of onlookers and begin the 1,000-mile trek to Nome.
"It never gets old," said Buser, who last won in 2002. "This year feels really special. I'm probably more prepared this year than in many many years, so I'm excited about that."
Buser is one of 53 veterans in a race with 65 mushers and said starting first isn't necessarily an advantage, but it certainly isn't a disadvantage. Getting first crack at the trail is usually a plus, he said.
Mushers will be using the "Southern Route" this season, which includes a pass through the abandoned mining town of Iditarod. Buser heard positives about the trail from participants in last week's Iditarod Invitational.
"So far, so good," he said. "I met some of the bikers and some of the runners who just ran and biked to McGrath and they said it was a fantastic trip for them, so hopefully the trail stays about the same and we should have about the same trip."
Among the other veterans to draw early starts was Lance Mackey, another four-time champion. He was fourth to take off Sunday and dished out enthusiastic high fives to fans on his right as his dog team trotted easily.
"It's pretty laid back," said Paul Gebhardt, who is racing in his 17th Iditarod and was 10th to hit the trail. "One thing about this year's competitors, from what I've seen there's not an outstanding team. There's probably 15 to 20 teams that can win this race, but there's not a team that's been dominant all season long."
All the teams usually reach Skwentna by nightfall of the first day, and some will often make camp there. Those continuing on might encounter some of the toughest spots on the trail.
"There's a little scary section right outside of Skwentna, then it's supposed to be be really good after that," Gebhardt said. "You just gotta get by it and then you're good."
Defending champion Dallas Seavey, who became the youngest to win last year at 25, was 18th to embark. He took off right behind four-time champion Jeff King, who last won in 2006. John Baker, the 2011 champion, was 12th to sail down the starting chute.
If the mushers don't begin their journey at a blistering pace, it could be due to warm weather. The temperature at Willow Lake was approaching 30 degrees by the time Buser left at 2 p.m.
"Anything above 10 degrees is pretty warm for the dogs," Gebhardt said. "When it cools down tonight, we'll do some more running at better speed."
There is a little trick for keeping the dogs cool during the day. Gebhardt planned to make a stop or two to let his team roll around in the snow.
The snow blanketing Willow Lake was thick and heavy and the overall scene surrounding the mushers was relatively quiet but festive. Various aromas drifted through the air, the product of several cooking stations run by mushers, fans and vendors alike. Snowmachines buzzed about the outskirts and a helicopter hovered above the starting chute for a bit.
There were also a few colorful costumes and they weren't limited to humans. A dog named Rin Tin Tin sat near the start line, sporting a hat with gold and blue stripes.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.