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When driving to the Iditarod start is more dangerous than the race itself

WILLOW — Sixty-seven mushers and dog teams were preparing to start the journey to Nome from Willow Lake Sunday afternoon as the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race got underway for real.

The race restarts in Willow after Saturday's 11-mile ceremonial start in Anchorage.

The quiet of the trail ahead comes as a relief for a race beset this year by accusations of doping scandals, big-name sponsors pulling out, internal conflict and animal rights groups protesting dog deaths.

At Sunday's restart, fans spread across normally quiet Willow Lake, temporarily boosting the population of this community of about 2,000 people along the Parks Highway.

More race watchers, most clustered around snowmachines, stretched for miles from the lake in the annual "trailgate" party that accompanies the race restart.

But for the mushers, just getting the restart was a challenge.

The Glenn Highway, coated with fresh snow Saturday, turned to ice north of Eagle River as trucks loaded with sleds, gear and at least 16 dogs maneuvered out of the city Saturday afternoon.

By mid-afternoon, the highway was shut down amid reports of 50 vehicles in the ditch and what seemed like too many wrecks to track.

One snared Kristy Berington, husband Andy Pohl, and 24 sled dogs in a truck and trailer behind them. Pohl is running Iditarod for the first time this year.

Berington, a race veteran, came up over a hill to see saw two people in the ditch and three cars blocking the roadway.

Kristy Berington. (Bill Roth / ADN)

"I tried to stop and hit the car in front of me, probably at 25 or 30 mph," Berington said Sunday morning. "Fortunately, nobody hit the dog trailer in the back of us."

An Anchorage police officer told her there were 15 accidents at the same time, just after 2 p.m.

Nobody was hurt, not the people or the dogs. But the dog truck was totaled. And there were 24 dogs without a way back to the couple's Knik kennel.

People started helping right away, Berington said. Race veterinarian Tabitha Jones, a few cars behind, skittered on foot across the icy highway to check the dogs.

A van from Alaska Missions happened to be nearby, too. They loaded the dogs in the truck into the van and hooked up the trailer carrying the rest. Yukon Quest veteran Christine Roalofs helped haul everybody to Sunday's start.

Berington said she and Pohl got "not even a few hours" of sleep Saturday between the lost driving time and the time it took to switch everything to Roalof's truck.

"Friends and family made everything possible," she said. "I don't want to drive anything except for a dog sled for the next month."

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