Iditarod fans shoveling snow, champions shoveling poop -- everybody pitched in

The trails through downtown were mostly devoured by the time the 78 official teams had made it off the starting line for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod by early Saturday afternoon.

After negotiating the notorious hill at Cordova Street, mushers and their 12-dog teams headed out onto the Anchorage greenbelt trail system. With a constant drizzle and temperatures over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, mushers feared the roughly eight-mile stretch on city parkland trails would be a nightmare. But as each slowly ticked off the miles, they found fairly good sledding.

"Not as bad as I thought," remarked musher Gerald Sousa as he stopped to replace a cloth dog bootie near East High School, about five miles into the trail.

Defending race champion Dallas Seavey said the ceremonial start is something mushers must take seriously. The tricky trail conditions -- not to mention the extra sled and an Iditarider in the basket -- meant he brought a team suited to going slow and steady.

"These are the smallest and the calmest," he said while prepping his team Saturday morning downtown. "I left the powerhouses at home. We don't want any more power than we absolutely have to have."

Rather than asphalt, mushers found the trails through the city's woodland park system mostly snow covered. And where bare patches shone through, spectators were often ready to pitch in. One man used a child's sled to shuttle snow from a pile near Davenport Field, about 3 miles from the starting line.

"We've got an assembly line going," said Gary Snyder as he and a couple friends loaded the sled.

Snyder and his pals were among dozens of trailside tailgate parties that broke out en route to Campbell Airstrip. In groups small and large, fans consumed hot dogs, beer, cookies and all manner of goodies. Some even had themes: here a pirate party, there a luau-themed event complete with tiki torches.

Mushers welcomed the groups of people with wide grins, often tossing booties to children or slapping high-fives with spectators. Some fans offered food or beverages, which one burgeoning fan favorite took full advantage of.

As the shorts-clad, thick-bearded (and slightly rotund) Brian Wilmshurst of Dawson City passed one party, the colorful Canadian reached out for a frosty beer. But he wasn't done, reaching out his other paw to snag a hot dog.

Iditarod champion to poop shoveler

The laid-back atmosphere around was the epicenter of the mushing world Saturday. Past race champions mingled with rookies, legends rubbed elbows with spectators and rookies gleefully signed autographs. And one former champion picked up a shovel.

Robert Sorlie, a Norwegian who won the race in 2003 and 2005, is working as a handler this year for fellow Norwegian Thomas Waerner. Although he's an Iditarod Hall of Fame member and an icon in Norway, Sorlie said he's not above doing the little, smelly things that help out a dog team.

"Yep, I'm the poop shoveler," he joked while talking with fellow handler Sean Naess and their mutual friend Gene Smith.

Joking aside, Sorlie and Naess both agreed that Waerner has one of the sharpest teams in this year's race. The dogs were pulled from three of the top kennels in Norway, including six from Sorlie's. The two-time champ said he believes the dogs can run with any team in the race.

"These are the fastest dogs in Norway," he said.

Naess said Waerner -- a rookie -- will have to learn fast if he wants to guide the team to Nome ahead of the pack.

"It's all up to Thomas," Naess said. "He has to do the job."

The Norwegians have been hanging out with Smith in Knik for a decade, and the group has formed a tight, jocular bond. Smith -- himself a dog driver who placed 75th in the 2008 Iditarod -- has visited Norway to pal around with his Scandanavian buddies. Now 71, Smith said Iditarod is what keeps him young.

"In 2006 I found out I had cancer, and since then I haven't had a bad day," he said. "I want to get my money's worth before I die."

Watching her dogs from a lawn chair

At the corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street, injured musher Karin Hendrickson was reclining in a blue lawn chair during the ceremonial start.

She was lying down for a good reason. Hendrickson was struck by an SUV in November while training with her dogs along the Parks Highway, breaking parts of her back. She's been in a turtle-shell body cast ever since and unless she's lying down, she's in pain.

"I've recovered from a lot of injuries, but I've never had one that's just so…" Hendrickson sighed. "We'll see how it comes together. It's been a difficult year."

She entrusted her team of "youngsters" to her good friend Bryan Bearss, an Iditarod veteran.

"It's hard to see my dogs go," Hendrickson said. "I want to be out on the trail."

Anthems on prof’s baritone horn

On the powerline trail between Northern Lights Boulevard and Tudor Road, an annual party that's at least 20 years old stretched for half a mile on Saturday afternoon. Banners hung above the trail welcoming teams, as did flags representing the mushers' homes in seven different nations.

Spectators Vic Fischer and his wife, Jane Anvik were among those in attendance. The couple are well-known Alaska state founders, with Fischer serving as one of 55 delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955-56.

Fischer said mushing is deeply woven into the fabric of the state he and his wife helped build.

"This is part of Alaska," he said.

But rather than wax too poetic, Fischer said the event is simply entertaining, with friends old and new gathering around fire pits and grills to swap tales and experience a version of the state few in the big city ever get to witness.

"This is just a fun place to hang out," he said.

A quarter-mile farther down the trail, economics professor Gunnar Knapp stood smiling in a blue hat with gold stars. Knapp has a unique way of welcoming mushers to the powerline stretch of trail: a baritone horn.

As each musher passed by Saturday, Knapp blew a loud welcoming tune on his brass instrument. It wasn't exactly Carnegie Hall, but the notes seemed apropos. When foreign mushers came down the trail, Knapp did his best to play their national anthems. When Canadian transplant Yuka Honda -- who lives in Whitehorse but grew up in Japan -- Knapp burst into an earnest version of "Oh Canada." Honda pumped her fist as she went by.

Knapp said the horn is something he's been doing for two decades.

"If they're going to come out and mush down the trail, we may as well come out and support them," he said.

‘I got a high five!’

Race fans old and new lined the trail through rain, wind and sunshine. Many of most enthusiastic were the tiniest, as toddlers and young children stared wide-eyed at the passing canine convoys. For some, the day turned into a dream come true.

That was the case for 8-year-old Travus Boyd, a third-grader at Ursa Major Elementary on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Boyd came to the race hoping to catch a glimpse of his favorite musher, Kasilof's Anna Berington. When Berington came shooting down the trail, Boyd reached out his little hand. Berington obliged with a high-five that turned Boyd's face to beaming.

"I got a high five!" he screamed as his classmate Kai Frank, 8, and Kai's brother, Kortez, 5, giggled in amazement.

Boyd said he's been studying up on the Iditarod in Cassie Green's class.

"This is awesome," he said.

Boyd said he'd like to try his hand at mushing one day, but when asked if he wanted to win the Iditarod, the youngster displayed a classic musher's modesty.

"I don't know about that," he said.

But you never know. One kid who grew up watching the race found himself in the winner's circle last year. And on Saturday morning, that big kid, 2014 race champion Dallas Seavey of Willow, said he still gets chills when the race comes around -- no matter the temperature outside.

"I'm completely stoked for this race," said the reigning champ. "Shoot, it's the Iditarod, right? I'm excited for it every year whether or not I'm going to be racing it. We're ready to rock and roll."