Despite this year's erratic weather, warmer temperatures and early lack of snowfall, mushers raced through Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, during the ceremonial start of the 2013 Iditarod on Saturday. Race workers layered Fourth Avenue with snow the night before, making a trail that cut from downtown Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. The Last Great Race is underway -- kind of. Teams will pack up and commute to Willow for the official start on Sunday.
Veteran musher Martin Buser departed first from downtown. Buser is currently the musher with the most consecutive Iditarod finishes -- 27 races completed in a row, 29 total finishes. He's gunning for a fifth win.
Just before the start, fans stood snapping photos and team members handling dogs surrounded Buser's truck, untangling bright blue harnesses. Buser said he was "feeling real good" about his chances, and didn't seem too worried about being the lead man out of the gate.
"Having the no. 1 bib is definitely not a disadvantage," Buser said. "I've got a great team full of young dogs. Young, but experienced."
Competitors curtailed ambitions of victory during the just-for-fun event. Crowds lined the streets to catch a glimpse of veteran and fan-favorite mushers near the start.
Before long, the trail won't be nearly as spectator-friendly, as it cuts through some of the most remote terrain in the United States. Dangers there include frostbite, overflow, howling winds, and open water as well as lurking moose and buffalo. In Anchorage, the dangers are simpler: pet dogs, unwary spectators and automobile exhaust fumes.
But the ceremonial start is an accessible way for people to gather and watch all of the mushers in one place before they spread out along the Iditarod trail. Marylin Reese, of Coronado, Calif., was visiting at the invite of a friend who sits on the Iditarod board, wearing a mink coat and soaking in the Fur Rondy atmosphere.
"I think it's as exciting as anything can get," she said of the start.
This year's Iditarod will follow the southern route, which is considered among the racers to be the tougher route; it's longer and includes more travel on Alaska's frozen rivers than the northern route run on even-numbered years.
Behind the start line Saturday, dogs barked and whined as mushers harnessed and organized their teams into the desired orders. Lead dogs quietly examined the competition while younger wheel dogs jumped in anticipation. The more stressed of the canines likely received a dose of Prilosec, an over-the-counter antacid that prevents gastric ulcers, which can be fatal and are sometimes exacerbated by running long distances.
This year's field features several former Iditarod champions, including four-time winners Jeff King, Buser and Lance Mackey. The winningest Iditarod champion, Rick Swenson, withdrew from the race a few weeks ago, citing personal reasons. About a dozen racers have the best prospects for being the first to cross the finish line in Nome.
Mackey seemed to hedge his bets a bit speaking beforet he start, noting his team of young dogs. Mackey dropped out of the Yukon Quest earlier this year after dropping numerous dogs, but his passion for mushing still shone through.
"My life is an adventure every day," Mackey said. "I feel like I keep getting knocked down, but the older I get, the harder it is to stand up."
Still, he added, "It's an addictive damn sport."
Twenty-five-year-old Dallas Seavey made history last year when he became the youngest musher ever to win the race. He and his father Mitch, the 2004 champion, along with last year's runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, are among the favorites. Two Rivers musher Allen Moore won the 30th Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last month, and is another racer to watch, though he gets stuck with the second-string team and gives the kennel's strongest dogs to wife Zirkle.
A handful of rookie mushers will miss out on the 2013 Iditarod. An early lack of snow coupled with warm temperatures cancelled several qualifying races this winter. Mushers must complete two 300-mile qualifiers to be eligible to race the Iditarod. Organizers of the Knik 200 Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race cancelled the event because of mushy snow. The risk to sled dog teams was too high, they said.
Dallas Seavey departed 18th.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com