It was fitting that during a winter in which many Alaska communities have been pounded with deeper-than-normal snowfall, the 66 mushers competing in the 2012 Iditarod rolled through downtown Anchorage on Saturday as snow fell lightly on the exuberant crowd lining Fourth Avenue.
This year's Iditarod kicked off with the traditional -- and just for show -- ceremonial start through the streets of downtown Anchorage, a crowd-friendly precursor to the race's true restart in Willow the next day. As usual, the mushers had a little fun with the event, as the pressure to compete had one last vacation day.
Far back from the official start line, dogs already tied to harnesses tugged against them, howling and yelping and anxious to get started. A race organizer shooed bystanders from the center of the street as teams made their way to the starting line.
"They need a tunnel of light to see where they're going!" he shouted. "These are country dogs, not city dogs!"
This year's trail will likely be a different beast than last, when Kotzebue resident and Alaska Native John Bakerwon the race in a record time of 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes -- four hours faster than the previous record set by Martin Buser. Baker mushed smart, but warm, clear weather for much of the race made for a fast trail for those in the lead -- and an occasional quagmire for those bringing up the rear. This year's trail looks good in terms of snow, but a heavy weather pattern like the ones that have peppered the state this winter could throw a curveball into some mushers' strategies.
All eyes on Hugh Neff
Musher Hugh Neff, who last month won the grueling, 1,000 mile Alaska-Canada Yukon Quest race, is competing again in this year's Iditarod. Many of Neff's dogs are Iditarod veterans, and if he won, it wouldn't be the first time someone's won the Quest and Iditarod in the same year.
Still, Neff said, "I don't care if I win." Instead, he said its about educating people about dog mushing and the sport itself. "We're always looking to stay enlightened."
But, as always, it's anyone's race.
Baker is back and wearing the number 11 bib, the tenth official musher out of the start line. Lance Mackey, who stumbled last year in his quest to win five straight titles and tie Rick Swenson for the all-time win number, returns with a young team that some believe he can steer to victory. Swenson himself, now 61, is back, as is last year's second-place finisher Ramey Smyth.
As usual, the Iditarod field is full of young upstarts and grizzled veterans, topped off with a heavy dose of tradition. Sounds a bit like Alaska.