Interior Alaska snow replaces Southcentral slush as Iditarod starts in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS -- Trading the rain and slush of Saturday's ceremonial start for 4 inches of fresh powder deposited Sunday, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race got going for real Monday morning in a more wintry setting in the heart of Interior Alaska.

Canadian musher Rob Cooke of Whitehorse drove his team of Siberian huskies down the starting chute just after 10 a.m. as thousands of Alaskans -- some playing hooky from work or school -- cheered. Seventy-seven mushers will give chase at two-minute intervals as the early portion of the re-routed race explores trails and villages never before visited in the 42 previous races to Nome.

"Seems a little bit more like the Iditarod when you actually have some snow around," Stan Hooley, the executive director of the Iditarod, told the Associated Press.

Just days ago, the start here was planned for the Chena River, but a wave of warm weather throughout Alaska last week worried officials, so the start was moved several hundred feet onto land. After a short hop overland of about a half-mile, mushers will begin a lengthy run along the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers.

RELATED: Meet the mushers of Iditarod 2015

New sights await, even for veterans like DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow who has more than three decades of Iditarod racing under her belt. Towns like Nenana (population 375 and site of Alaska's longest bridge), Manley Hot Springs (population 90 and the one-time home of mushing legend Susan Butcher), Tanana (population 300), Huslia (population 270 and home of the late sprint mushing titan George Attla) and Koyukuk (population 100 on the Yukon River) are not checkpoints on the race's normal route, which would have run from Willow in Southcentral Alaska.

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.

Passing through Manley Hot Springs will evoke memories of Butcher, one of the race's greatest competitors, who died of leukemia in 2006. Coincidentally, this year's race includes more women than have ever started an Iditarod, 25 -- or 32 percent of the field.

One of the best woman mushers since four-time champion Butcher is also one of the favorites this year. Aliy Zirkle, 45, of Two Rivers, has finished second to one Seavey or another (father Mitch once, son Dallas twice) the last three years, the longest streak of runner-up finishes in race history.

RELATED: King, Seavey recall dramatic finish of Iditarod 2014

"I have no regrets about any of my races and I won't have any regrets this year, either," Zirkle said at Saturday's ceremonial start. "All I can say is I'll do the best I can. I know a lot of people are rooting for me, but no one puts more pressure on me than me."

Zirkle's team includes a dog nearly as famous as mushers such as Zirkle, the Seaveys and four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser.

Quito, an 8-year-old female who has a pair of Yukon Quest victories and five runner-up finishes between the Iditarod and Quest, will be back in lead after helping deliver one of those second-place finishes to Zirkle's husband, Allen Moore, just weeks ago.

Quito and two other 8-year-olds -- Chica and Nacho -- make up the core of her team and Zirkle expects this Iditarod will be the last for that veteran trio.