Iditarod mushers head off in wet, sloppy conditions, led by Canadian

Driving a team of Siberian huskies, Rob Cooke of Whitehorse led a pack of 78 Iditarod mushers out of downtown Anchorage on Saturday morning.

Thousands of spectators lined the streets downtown for the ceremonial start of the 43rd Iditarod as about a thousand howling, tail-wagging sled dogs paraded through town. More spectators gathered at popular viewing spots along the 11 miles of trail to Campbell Airstrip.

Cooke, 48, is a two-time finisher of the Yukon Quest but an Iditarod rookie. He drew the No. 2 bib at Thursday's banquet, making him the first musher on the trail. Cooke is one of 20 rookies competing in the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

By tradition, the No. 1 bib goes to the race's honorary musher, who this year is Philip Esai, a longtime volunteer who died last May at age 72.

Only this year the race doesn't go from Anchorage to Nome.

For just the second time in 43 races and the first time since 2003, officials moved the race start north in order to find suitable trail conditions.

A winter's worth of mild temperatures means nearly barren ground south of the Alaska Range. And so instead of holding the restart Sunday about 70 miles north of Anchorage in Willow, as is usually the case, mushers and their dogs will head 360 miles north to Fairbanks for a Monday re-start.

Crews worked all week to prepare bridges and tunnels in Anchorage for Saturday's ceremonial start, but rain on Thursday and Friday nights wiped out some of their efforts.

A strong field that includes six champions will vie for a purse of $725,100, an increase of $50,000 over last year's. The winner will collect $70,000, the biggest first-place payoff in race history.

Dallas Seavey of Willow earned $50,400 for his dramatic victory last year, when he charged past Aliy Zirkle to send the Two Rivers musher to her third consecutive second-place finish. The championship was the second in three years for 28-year-old Seavey.

Other champions include four-time winners Lance Mackey, Martin Buser and Jeff King, two-time winner Mitch Seavey (father of Dallas) and 2011 winner John Baker.

Expect a champion in Nome in nine or 10 days.

Live Twitter updates at @ADNIditarod.

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