See you in Willow. Nome too, God willing and the creek don't rise.
Mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began their 1,000-mile journey to Nome with an 11-mile cruise through Anchorage on a brisk, sunny Saturday.
Big on spectacle and short on sport, the ceremonial start was a preview to the real thing, which begins Sunday in Willow. Dog teams will depart in two-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m. -- and unlike Saturday, they will keep going and going and going, and the clock will be ticking.
Ahead is a trail made treacherous by mild weather. That part about the creek rising? In this Iditarod, open water is a real threat. Stretches of barren ground are practically a guarantee. Obstacles like rocks and branches, usually blanketed by snow, litter portions of the trail.
But Saturday was smooth sailing for the 69 mushers and their teams, the guests of honor at Anchorage's biggest annual party.
Crowds filled downtown streets for up-close views of dogs and drivers. Vendors hawked hot dogs and hot coffee, and fans snapped selfies with their favorite mushers. Many more spectators clustered along the trail for tailgate parties, enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the 20s.
"This is my whole social life in the winter, these two days," said Libby Riddles, the 1985 Iditarod champion who was there to take in the scene and renew old acquaintances.
The ceremonial parade began with Curt Perano, a New Zealand man hoping to reach Nome for the third time, and ended with Sonny Lindner, a Two Rivers man shooting for his 19th finish.
In between were 67 other racers, all of them with an agenda.
Some are in it to win it.
"I don't see any reason I can't win the race," said Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe, who owns 16 top-10 finishes, including one from last year. "My team is deep with leadership. We haven't had many races, so that's an unknown. But there's no real flaws in the team."
"I know I have a competitive team and a competitive race plan," said Canada's Hans Gatt, third in 2011 and a four-time Yukon Quest champion. "They are absolutely built for this trail."
"This is the most mature team we've ever had," said Two River's Allen Moore, whose wife Aliy Zirkle is running 12 of the dogs that took Moore to a second straight Quest victory last month. "They all have run multiple thousand-mile races. With a little bit of luck and (no) injuries, she'll be there at the end and have a chance to win."
Others have grand goals that don't involve winning. Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Alberta, is racing her 11th and final Iditarod, and she hopes it ends with her sixth finish.
Ramstead has scratched five times, always out of concern for her purebred Siberian huskies, whose gorgeous faces and fur deserve a Best of Show award.
"Other mushers have a bad year and they finish 40th. I have a bad year and I scratch. I'm here for the dogs," she said. "I proved long ago that I'm tough enough. It's all about the dogs. My fans understand that. They get that about me.
"For me, it's about getting the dogs to Nome in a happy, respectful way."
Then there the mushers on a mission.
Monica Zappa, a rookie from Kasilof, is mushing to save Bristol Bay. Ramey Smyth, a veteran from Willow, is mushing for drug and alcohol sobriety. Hugh Neff, the 2012 Quest winner from Tok, is mushing for increased state funding for public schools. Matt Failor, a two-time finisher from Ohio, is mushing for esophageal cancer awareness. Zirkle and Big Lake's Martin Buser are promoting vaccine awareness by carrying vials of diphtheria vaccine in their sleds -- an homage to the 1925 serum run, in which teams of sled dogs relayed life-saving antitoxin from Nenana to Nome, which was imperiled by a diphtheria outbreak.
There are almost as many causes as there are mushers.
"What I wanted to do was have something to give back, because as mushers, you take a lot," Zappa said, explaining her Save Bristol Bay campaign. "And the dogs love salmon."
Zappa is running Tim Osmar dogs from the Kenai Peninsula. Osmar, her partner, is a commercial fisherman; two years ago they adopted Bristol Bay as a cause and have taken their message throughout Alaska and the Lower 48.
Zappa was happy about an EPA decision last week that could halt the proposed Pebble Mine.
"I think they waited to do that for Iditarod week," she said.
Smyth, a regular in the top 10, said he has crusaded against drug and alcohol abuse for years.
"I grew up in Alaska and I've seen the damage these things do to families -- the emotional, financial and generational costs," he said.
"I know young people look up to the (Iditarod) stars in this state. I think that everyone out here should stand for something."
Neff's outreach involves education, which made him a natural to promote the cause of Great Alaska Schools, a group pushing for increased state funding of public schools.
"I'm a kid at heart, and I've been talking to kids for 10 years now," said Neff, who, as usual, wore a Cat in the Hat hat on his trip through Anchorage. "I visit 40 to 50 schools a year. I tell them to live a life of adventure, take risks and seek the best life they can."
Failor delivered two messages on Saturday. His truck and sled had signs promoting cancer awareness and organ donation.
The organ donation message was inspired by his Idita-Rider, Mary Kutney, an Eagle River nurse practitioner who had a kidney transplant 19 months ago
"A coworker gave it to me," Kutney said. "Her son has juvenile diabetes and she figures what comes around goes around. Someday he may need a kidney."
Being an Idita-Rider was on her bucket list, and she and husband Ken Kutney decided this year was the time to do it. They bid on Failor because he and Ken share the same high school alma mater in Mansfield, Ohio -- St. Pete's Catholic High School.
Failor lives in Alaska now, and his mom and sister made the trip north to see him off. His sister Katie helped get T-shirts and signs made to raise awareness for esophageal cancer. She worked with a woman whose husband died at age 44 from the disease, leaving behind three children, including a 10-year-old boy who loves the Iditarod.
"I said, OK, we've got to do this," Katie said.
Riddles, who hasn't raced the Iditarod for years, doesn't remember quite as many causes on the trail back in her day. But she gets it. She said it probably helps mushers attract sponsors, "and it involves mushers in the community more."
Abbie West is a Quest veteran and Iditarod rookie whose lives a back-to-basics life in Fort Yukon, where she and partner Josh Cadzow raise chickens and goats, run a fish wheel and use their sled dogs to haul wood and check trap lines.
Asked if she is mushing for a cause she said no, and then reconsidered.
"For my sanity," she said.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
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By BETH BRAGG