Rain, wind and shine, mushers and fans made the most of a wet, weird – and ultimately wonderful – Iditarod ceremonial start on Saturday across Anchorage for the city's annual sled dog extravaganza.
From the odd sight of a single-lane snow track down an otherwise snowless Fourth Avenue to better-than-expected trails winding through the heart of the city, the event proved to be one of the more notable race starts in the Iditarod's 43 years.
A light rain was falling around 8 a.m. In their bright ponchos, Bea Hopkins, Douglas Steel and his wife Joyce Steel trekked through downtown toward Fourth Avenue. The trio said they weren't bothered one bit by the rain.
"I love it," Hopkins said. "It's nice to have a reprieve from winter."
Of course, mushers had varying opinions.
"This isn't mushing weather," said Brian Wilmshurst, a rookie musher from Dawson City in the Yukon. "I feel like I'm on a beach."
Others just shrugged.
"Dogs don't care about this," said Kelly Maixner, who is running his fourth Iditarod. "We care if we get rained on and slush but dogs don't care."
Maixner plans to retire after this Iditarod to focus on raising his three young children, which he said was a tough decision. He's raised his sled dogs since they were puppies.
"They're all kind of like kids to me, also," Maixner said of his dog team.
Among those to sign up for this year's race were plenty of the usual suspects – about half the entrants listed no occupation other than mushing – and plenty of unusual ones as well.
Tougher than climbing Everest?
Racers came to downtown Anchorage on Saturday from all over the world and all walks of life. A handful of teachers, carpenters and laborers are competing in this year's race, as are two doctors, a pair of dentists, a chemical engineer, a millwright, a psychiatrist and a mortician.
Oh, and two people who have climbed Mount Everest.
Reaching Nome – statistically speaking – is a far more difficult achievement than getting to the top of the world. About 4,000 people have made it to the top of Everest, while only 731 have the right to wear the official finisher's patch given to those who successfully traverse the treachery that lies between Fourth Avenue and Front Street.
Cindy Abbott and Steve Watkins have climbed to the top of the world's tallest mountain. Abbott, of California, said both adventures come with unique challenges.
"Everest is deadlier but I'd say for me Iditarod is harder," said Abbott, who has twice scratched before reaching Nome.
While most mushers live in rural Alaska or Canada, eight different states are represented in the field, as are mushers from seven different countries. Curt Perano grew up in New Zealand and moved to Willow to run dogs with his wife, Fleur. He's finished three races, and his 2-year-old son, Wyatt, has been at each one.
"His first was when he was 8 weeks old," Curt said Saturday morning while feeding his dogs in the downtown staging area.
As Perano prepped his dogs for the 11-mile run across the city, little Wyatt bounced around the cab of the Perano dog truck, grabbing the paper plate with Curt's bib number on it and using it as an impromptu coloring pad.
Fleur also runs dogs, and for the Perano family, mushing is the family sport. That's how it is with most who take up the sport, he said. After all, keeping a team of dogs is a full-time commitment.
"I think this would be a really tough sport if your partner wasn't 100 percent into it, he said: "It's more than a sport. It's pretty much your whole lifestyle."
Sen. Murkowski, dog handler
As mushers began to take off from the start line, the sun broke through the clouds.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski was supposed to be at a ribbon-cutting at the start line. But she missed it because she jumped in to help direct musher Jessie Royer's sled dog team, the third to leave the start. Murkowski's niece, Breanna Dwyer, is working with Royer's team.
In a pair of sealskin gloves and Sorel boots, Murkowski was upbeat. She'd left her Helly Hansen rain jacket in the car because the sun came out.
"Yeah, we were all disappointed when we woke up to the pounding rain," Murkowski said. "But look at it. There's blue sky, the dogs are yipping and happy, it's all good."
On the Fourth Avenue sidewalk, Lydia Agnus, 23, said she was "toasty" in her handmade fur gloves and coat.
Agnus grew up in the Western Alaska village of Nightmute, about 100 miles west of Bethel. She didn't have a chance to watch the festivities in person growing up, so she makes a point to see them in Anchorage as an adult. She also tries to wear her furs, made by her grandmother, in the spirit of Fur Rondy.
This year, Agnus said, the weather just wasn't cooperating.
"I just sympathize for them," Agnus said. "They train all year for this one event."
Toni Quantick of Palmer said she's come to watch the ceremonial start in Anchorage for 15 years, and has "never, never, never" seen the weather like this.
"At least we're getting it done," Quantick said. "Alaska getting it done."
She added that the ceremonial start typically involves hauling in at least some snow, rather than leaving it entirely up to nature.
Perfect for Arizonans
Blair Bozareth, watching her third Iditarod ceremonial start with her 9-month-old son strapped to her chest, said the mood felt different this year.
"The spirit ... there's, like, not as much spirit," said Bozareth, 33. "It seems subdued, somehow."
"The dogs are very excited," said her friend Erika Thompson, standing nearby.
Thompson, who came up from Arizona to watch the ceremonial start, said she was perfectly fine with the weather.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't handle under 20 degrees," Thompson said.
As the number of mushing teams leaving the start line climbed into the dozens, the snow turned into a thin mush. Asphalt was visible under the track lines. A braking sled generated a harsh, grating sound.
"It's not a real normal sound," said Ron Kaiser, the father of musher Pete Kaiser, bringing up the rear on the Kaiser team sled. "We're down on the pavement."
200 dump truck loads
Getting to Nome is a big job. Just getting the teams out of downtown Anchorage in a rainstorm requires a small army of laborers. Early Saturday morning, about 25 truck drivers contracted by the Municipality of Anchorage dumped load after load of snow on the streets of downtown. Another dozen or so front-end loaders and graders smoothed and shaped the snow into a semblance of a trail. As late-night revelers watched – and sometimes got in the way – the crews created a soggy white strip in the middle of a gray sea of asphalt.
Supervising the monumental effort was municipal street maintenance supervisor Jimmy Belz. Belz said the annual task of creating a trail through downtown is never easy but was made even more of a challenge by persistent rains that fell all night.
"We're trying to pack it," he said while sitting in his truck on Fourth Avenue. "Anything that's loose is like 'A River Runs Through It.'"
Crews brought in 200 dump truck loads overnight, which heavy equipment and a groomer from Hilltop Ski Area then whipped into shape. He said the municipality brought in about a third more snow than usual this year because of the damp, warm conditions.
One of the challenges of laying down snow in a busy urban area is congestion. Belz said crews are constantly trying to keep cars – cab drivers especially – and pedestrians off the snow overnight. At intersections like Fourth Avenue and D Street in front of the Avenue Bar, that was impossible early Saturday morning as late-night revelers poured back and forth across the slushy, snow-covered thoroughfare. Some threw snowballs at each other while dodging the big machines.
"It's always wild down here," Belz said.
Despite the unusual nature of the gig, the work is something the maintenance crew actually looks forward to each year.
"It is fun," he said. "This year is challenging but it's getting to build something cool."
He said workers take pride in doing their part to make the ceremonial start a reality. But he did admit that he had no plans to watch the race itself once the crew's work was done.
"I'm going to bed," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing