It's no secret this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is facing challenges due to maddening trail conditions. Mushers, dogs, spectators -- everyone has had to practice patience and flexibility as Alaska endures its warmest winter in decades.
But finally, after weeks of questions about safety and route changes, the Iditarod will go on, despite a few significant adaptations. Teams are scheduled to depart Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, March 7, for the race's ceremonial start, followed by a restart two days later in Fairbanks.
If you've never experienced an Iditarod start, or have not yet shared the day with children, this is an event to be savored as a uniquely Alaskan family tradition. Even young kids know about the Serum Run to Nome in 1925, when dog teams made a stormy trek north in order to save many residents of Nome from a diphtheria outbreak.
While today's Iditarod reflects only a memory of that original journey, those memories also hold an enormous amount of Alaska pride. The Iditarod atmosphere is festive, with hundreds of sled dogs yipping and yowling in a cacophony of utter joy for the job they're about to do. Media and fans mingle with long-time mushing families, curious visitors, and an array of Alaska notables. Armed with race guides, pens, and smartphones, kids at the downtown Anchorage start flock to their favorite musher in search of an autograph, or maybe a selfie, before the teams begin assembling.
For families, opportunities to witness the syncopation between musher and canine teammate are treasured Alaska moments that can't be translated into other experiences around the world. There is but one Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, after all, so parents want to know the best places to watch team after team trot by, while allowing wiggly kids to play over the hours it takes all 78 teams to run by.
For those new to Iditarod festivities, the opportunity to spend a few hours along Fourth Avenue are worth time spent in crushing crowds of eager race fans. Families should plan to arrive downtown no later than 8 a.m. Saturday to greet teams in the staging areas, take photos, and give a high-five to mushers. Before the 10 a.m. start, walk east toward Cordova Street, an excellent venue for watching teams trot by on the 11-mile journey through town, ending at Campbell Airstrip.
Campbell Airstrip and Campbell Creek Science Center
Many kids become restless after the novelty of Iditarod start day wears off, so the Campbell Creek Science Center, located near Elmore Road, provides a nice diversion in addition to dog-watching. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. during the ceremonial start, the center offers crafts, hot chocolate, snacks, and information about the Historic Iditarod Trail, which actually begins in Seward.
The main road leading into the center will be closed to vehicles, so visitors can either walk in from one of the adjoining trail heads, or take a free shuttle from Kasuun Elementary along 68th Avenue, or Abbott Loop Community Park, just south of the science center. All activities are free, with donations accepted for Friends of Campbell Creek Science Center, the advocacy group responsible for the cocoa and snacks. (www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/sciencecenter.html)
Campbell Airstrip is a scenic place to view teams approaching the ceremonial finish line. Nearly a mile in length, this Bureau of Land Management airfield is lined on either side by forest land and framed by a stunning Chugach Range backdrop. Pack a sled full of picnic items, beverages, chairs, and camera gear and set up camp along the trail within easy reach of mushers. Kids will enjoy the opportunity for a bit of fun in the trees too; my son has fond memories of building forts and playing hide-and-seek with his friends, popping out now and again to shout a hearty "Good luck!" to passing teams.
Presenting a challenge for Southcentral residents -- but a nice bonus for Interior mushing fans -- is Monday's Fairbanks start. The start line has been moved, again, this time from the Chena River in front of Pike's Landing to Hoselton Road a few hundred yards south. Mushers will head overland for a few miles before connecting to the larger and more frozen Tanana River enroute to Nenana, the first checkpoint.
Families wanting to observe what is often considered the "real" start to the Iditarod should be aware that viewing space will be tight, with the potential for kid-related chaos.
Race organizers are strongly suggesting spectators use free shuttle bus service from the Carlson Center between 7 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Because this is several miles from the start area at Hoselton Road, parents should pack everything their family might need during the day, including extra clothing, hand warmers, food, and drinks. Despite logistical challenges, Fairbanks is excited to host this event, and the local visitors bureau has a long list of activities to keep everyone busy before or after the race start.
This is only the second time in Iditarod history that conditions have forced race organizers to move the start hundreds of miles (it has moved from Wasilla to Willow numerous times) but none of that should diminish fans' enthusiasm. Some Interior Alaska residents will get to witness the Last Great Race for the first time.
If ever there was a year to cheer on the spirit of Alaska with kids, this would be it.
A few things for parents to keep in mind:
• Plan for lots of walking. Fuel kids with a good breakfast, snacks, and hot drinks throughout the day. Bring a stroller or pack for little ones. Take breaks.
• Dress warm. Layers will be the key in 2015, including a waterproof outer layer to protect against (gasp) wet weather, which was looking like a possibility. Carry chemical hand warmers and extra mittens too.
• Be mobile. Bring a sled, carry backpacks, and take shuttle buses wherever possible to minimize spectator angst.
• Leave Fido home. Sorry, folks, this day belongs to racing canines. Sled dogs often don't interact well with other dogs, and vice versa.
• Listen to race staff and volunteers. It takes hundreds of people to make the Iditarod go, including volunteers who give vacation time to help. Respect their guidance for things like viewing areas, photo opportunities, and chants for dog booties.
• Cheer. Every musher deserves praise for undertaking an adventure of this magnitude. 2015 is definitely the time for "more cowbell."
Erin Kirkland is the author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation. Connect with her at email@example.com.