Iditarod gets warm sendoff from thousands in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS—As Iditarod mushers started west every two minutes Monday morning from an improvised starting line across from the Fairbanks International Airport, each pressed hard on the sled brake, churning up the snow to keep energized dogs from going out too fast.

With the temperature at 4 degrees and thousands of fans lining the chute, the race to Nome enjoyed an energetic sendoff that lasted almost three hours.

Chloe Yourdan, a fifth-grader from Eielson Air Force Base, waved a sign over her head as each musher passed, with the message: "Safe Journey, Good Luck."

"At first we were going to pick one person, but it was really hard to figure out," she said, "So me and my mom decided to make a poster for everyone, just wishing them good luck and safe travels."

Erika Yourdan, her partner in sign-making, said Chloe has been enamored with the Iditarod since she learned about it as a second-grader when the family was stationed in England courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. When Erika's husband, Matthew, received orders to transfer to Alaska, Chloe's first response was, "I want to see the Iditarod."

Thousands of others with the same desire to see The Last Great Race rose early to wait in line for shuttle buses that ran from the Carlson Center, near downtown Fairbanks, out to the airport. The traffic congestion didn't seem as bad as it was in 2003, the last time the Iditarod was forced north to Fairbanks because of low-snow conditions in Southcentral, but still it was slow going for hours.

Most people took the shuttle buses, and some were still in transit 90 minutes after the first musher, Canadian Rob Cooke, took off from the starting line outside Pike's Waterfront Lodge. Still, there was plenty of time to see much of the field with Zoya Denure from Paxson last in the 78th position.

In the audience, there were lots of children whose parents allowed them to skip school, adults who missed a bit of work, retirees with an appreciation for big local events and diehard Iditarod fans from the Interior who enjoyed the chance to see the race in person this year.

Among out-of-town visitors was Joel Cooke, an Air Force captain from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. He drove to Fairbanks early Monday to watch the start and hopes to be in Nome for the finish. He said that by talking to people and getting rides here and there it is possible to see and learn a lot about the Iditarod.

"It's a unique part of Alaska," he said.

A choir from North Pole High School sang the national anthem and the muffled sound of mittened applause competed with the noise of barking dogs and bunny boots crunching in the snow. The crowd leaned toward people with heavy parkas dressed for the weather, though there was an occasional person with a baseball cap and red ears.

Fairbanks Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said it appeared that the community's advance planning paid off, for the most part, though the slow pace of traffic to the airport did slow the buses, he said. All in all, he said Fairbanks did a good job with the restart.

Mary Shields, the first woman to complete the Iditarod to Nome, spoke shortly before the start and recommended that the dogs stay calm and drink their water.

Shields, who ran the Iditarod in 1974, also said that mushers should savor the moment, observing that one day they will look back over 40 years and wonder at how fast it went.

Jay Ramras, owner of Pike's, said the hotel had a full house Sunday night. It served as an unofficial race headquarters of sorts and a place to warm up. A greenhouse on the property served as a shelter where some mushers repaired sleds, and some racers who didn't have rooms deployed sleeping bags the night before the race to camp in hotel conference rooms.

More than 1,000 people had a free breakfast early Monday at Pike's as the last-minute race preparations took place in an impromptu staging area nearby. Except for the large canine crowd, it was a typical morning in March.

Ramras, who was hatless in the cold but wearing bunny boots, seized the moment to tape some commercials for his establishment, describing the scene for viewers who wouldn't recognize the site when the flowers are blooming, the river is flowing and the summer temperature is 80 degrees.

While Fairbanks has had some of its normally famous winter weather, this winter has been mild, and the Chena River ice at Pike's was not thick enough to hold the weight of dogs and people. In downtown Fairbanks, the power plant dumps cooling water into the river, which keeps several miles of the waterway free of ice even when the weather is cold. The extent of the thin ice expands during a warm winter.

For that reason, Iditarod officials kept the race on neighborhood roads and directed the mushers to the river closer to the point where it enters the Tanana River. From there, it was on to Nome.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.