WILLOW -- With the Iditarod's ceremonial start behind them, mushers were greeted with mild weather on Sunday as they pushed off from the Iditarod's official restart line in Willow to begin the grueling 1,000-mile journey to Nome.
Fans began gathering to watch the race beneath mostly clear skies on Sunday morning with Mount McKinley visible in the distance, bundled up with thermoses and coffee cups as temperatures hovered around 20 degrees.
Dogs and mushers were rearing to go early in the morning, the excitement palpable in the air. Veteran musher Kristy Berington, wearing bib No. 20, was feeling it too.
"Yeah, this is my fourth one, and I still get excited and nervous all the time," Berington said. "I can't fight the feeling."
The official start, though, meant mushers must take the restart a bit more seriously than the just-for-fun ceremonial start in Anchorage the day before. Rookie musher Christine Raolofs, a dentist who keeps a kennel in Anchorage, described the run through city trails crowded with fans as a "high-five slap fest."
"That was fun," Raolofs said," but today, we can't have that -- gotta get serious."
Raolofs said her strategy was to get lots of rest early on, staying near the back of the pack, then to stay consistent following the mandatory 24-hour rest that all mushers must take at some point along the trail.
The race kicked off at 2 p.m., as Martin Buser, who drew the pole position at Thursday night's banquet, rolled out from the start line.
Many mushers carry good luck charms with them -- Berington said that she would be wearing a guardian angel pin, while musher Matt Failor said that he had downsized his own good luck charms to a letter and a set of courage beads. He'd previously brought heavier mementos, but was trying to go as light as possible for 2013.
Some mushers, though, might downplay the luck factor more than others. Aliy Zirkle, last year's runner up, said that she had 16 good luck charms, referring to her entire dog team. Instead, planning takes center stage when Zirkle discusses her approach to the race.
"I have strategy a, b, c, d and e, so whatever Mother Nature ends up handing us, that's what I'll end up doing," Zirkle said.
From the starting point in Willow, the teams will cross frozen rivers and swamps before winding through a birch forest to arrive at the first checkpoint at Yentna Station, 42 miles away. This year, the race is following what's known as the Southern Route, which is considered a bit longer than the Northern Route and passes through some of the most desolate terrain of America with nary a resident for hundreds of miles.
Mushers ascend Rainy Pass, crossing an elevation of more than 3,000 feet, passes through the ghost town of Iditarod, over the frozen Norton Bay before the stretch run down the Seward Peninsula to the Nome finish. Mushers pass 26 checkpoints in all.
The field was already down by one at the Sunday restart; musher Ed Stielstra of McMillian, Mich., an Iditarod veteran, scratched following the ceremonial start on Saturday. A release from the Iditarod said that Stielstra had already decided to opt out of the race in late February due to a training accident but wanted to fulfill his ceremonial start duties and waited until Saturday afternoon to make his scratch official.
Sixty-five mushers are now vying for the title this year, among them six Iditarod champions and past champions from other races, including the Yukon Quest, the Kusko 300 and the Copper Basin 300. Mushers to watch include:
• Fan-favorite DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, whose successes include 15 top-10 Iditarod finishes;
• Defending champion Dallas Seavey, who won the Iditarod last year at age 25, the youngest winner in race history;
• John Baker of Kotzebue, winner of the 2011 Iditarod and the first Inupiat champion. Baker said he has a "really excellent" team this year;
• Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, last year's runner-up;
• Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, who won the Iditarod four consecutive years from 2007-2010 and is the only musher in history to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and Iditarod back to back. Last month, however, Mackey had to pull out of the Yukon Quest as his dog team struggled;
• Perennial contender Aaron Burmeister, who is back after taking a year off; and
• Ramey Smyth, who came in third in last year's race.
A crowd gathers
And while the mushers began their grueling journey, the crowd of Iditarod fans stretched for Willow up the Susitna River for dozens of miles. It is the Alaska version of a tailgate party -- some refer to it as "trailgating" -- with crowds enjoying a day of barbecuing, music and drinking.
Hundreds of spectators lined the start on Willow Lake as rock music blared from speakers elevated on a crane high above the crowd. Folks of all ages had gathered to send off the mushers. Terry Schneider of Willow sat close to the start line on his snow machine. He had come out with his grandson, just "seeing what's going on," as he does every year for Iditarod, he said.
Retired Anchorage school teacher Jack McCarl, or "Captain Jack," as his friends call him, wore a full seal-skin suit. The suit belonged to a famous polar bear hunter named Jack Lee, and it was gifted to him only after Lee's death, McCarl said.
"I only wear this outfit for the Iditarod," he said.
Mark Austin of the Palmer Musk Ox Farm was perched on the sideline with lawn chairs and a full spread of hors d'oeuvres, with grapes, sliced bell peppers, bread and dips. This was Austin's first time watching the send off for some years, so he figured he'd "go big," he said.
Several groups had built fires into the snow, and children gathered around one, roasting marshmallows.
The 732nd Aircraft Mobility Squadron, better known as the Huskies, had come from JBER in Anchorage at 7 a.m. to set up two tents and their grills. One tent was "cold" for food storage, and the other was "hot" for warm storage -- "including most of the small children," said Sharon Robinette. She and her husband Rob from the squadron were "enjoying family time, Alaskan-style," complete with moose burgers on the grill.
On Long Lake, the scene was a bit rowdier, with large packs of snowmachines parked next to the trail, and lots of people knocking back beers and smoking cigarettes. A family on the lake sang "Happy Birthday" to Dallas Seavey, whose birthday will take place on the trail.
Even some of the mushers were apparently excited. Twenty-one-year-old racer Travis Beals, a rookie wearing bib no. 22, reportedly shouted "I'm running the Iditarod!" as he crested over the hill onto Long Lake.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com