It's Iditarod Saturday in downtown Anchorage, and fans are soaking up the scene.
They hold cellphones high to get photos of four-time champion Dallas Seavey and his dogs. They swarm perennial favorite DeeDee Jonrowe for last-minute hugs and photos before Jonrowe steps onto her sled runners for her 35th run to Nome. They pose for selfies while standing near four-time champion Martin Buser's dog truck.
With five past champions and last year's entire top 10 racing this year, there is no shortage of star power along Fourth Avenue.
This is the Oscars of sled-dog racing, and the snow-covered avenue is the red carpet. Jeff King, Aliy Zirkle, Mitch Seavey, John Baker, the Berington twins — all members of mushing's glitterati — draw crowds as they wait their turn to begin the 11-mile ceremonial ride across Anchorage that marks the start of the 45th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
But once the race's first team leaves the start line, driven by Ryan Redington, center stage belongs to Sarah Keefer.
Fans don't know Keefer by name or by face. She's a 35-year-old from Minnesota who came to Alaska last month to work as a handler for the Redingtons.
But she can't walk 10 yards without being stopped by someone with a camera or a cellphone.
The attraction is obvious — in each arm, Keefer cradles a puppy from musher Raymie Redington's newest litter.
The soft, furry pups are about 7 weeks old, black, brown and white darlings who are all paws. They're getting their first taste of The Last Great Race — and they give Keefer 15 minutes of fame.
"Nobody has ever seen a puppy before," Keefer jokes as she makes her way back to Ryan's truck, a stop-and-go walk filled with puppy love.
It's the first time the puppies have been away from their littermates and their home in Knik, Keefer said. Raymie has three sons in this year's race — Ryan, Ray Jr. and Robert — and the puppies are in Anchorage to meet Ryan's Idita-Rider, a 10-year-old girl from Wisconsin named Annika.
Annika came to Alaska courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She is recovering from treatment for a brain tumor, and the foundation helped her realize her dream to see the Iditarod.
Part of Annika's dream was to meet sled dogs, so Ryan arranged the puppy visit. Keefer said Annika was more excited to hold the puppies than she was to ride through Anchorage in Ryan's sled.
As a bonus, Annika gets to name the two dogs.
Keefer finally reaches Ryan's truck and puts one of the pups inside a kennel. She holds the other a while longer, its little body trembling.
"This is the most intense day this puppy has ever had," she says.
— Beth Bragg
Mushers rave about Anchorage trail
Iditarod mushers pulling to a halt at the Campbell Tract airstrip where Saturday's ceremonial start ended said they'd never seen such perfect conditions in Anchorage — crispy cold, windless and with a snow-draped trail.
It was a sharp departure from recent warm years. In 2015, mushers ran on dirt, said Cindy Abbott, who is in her fourth race. Multiple teams that year struck a tree at a sharp turn not far from the airstrip, because sleds couldn't slide around the corner without snow.
"This is amazing," said Abbott, wearing an orange-and-blue bib, her team colors and a nod to her alma mater, California State University, Fullerton.
"Never seen better," said four-time winner Buser as he rolled into the large clearing where mushers loaded dogs into trucks for the drive to Fairbanks.
Buser said his dogs usually lose booties as they run through Anchorage, where often old snow riddled with gravel and other debris is piled onto the trail, creating grit that helps tear off the paw protectors.
That was no problem this year.
"I don't think we blew out a single bootie," he said. "It was all natural snow."
Hans Gatt, a veteran of 15 races, was similarly impressed.
"Never seen anything like this," Gatt said as he tied dogs to the side of his truck. "It was nice, hard and white. No soft spots."
— Alex DeMarban
High hopes for Team Burmeister
When Noah Burmeister returned to the Iditarod last year after a decadelong break, the 1,000-mile race to Nome was all about learning.
This year, it's about winning. That's his goal.
"There's probably 15 or 20 teams capable of it," Burmeister said. "It all depends on the driver and how they care for their dogs."
Burmeister finished 11th last year while driving dogs from brother Aaron's Alaska Wildstyle Racing kennel in Nenana.
Because this year's race was rerouted to avoid poor and snow-starved stretches of trail on the traditional route, Burmeister's dogs will be in familiar territory. The first checkpoint on the 1,000-mile trail from Fairbanks to Nome is Nenana.
"We're going right on the trails we train on," said Burmeister, 37. "The kennel's a mile off the trail."
The dogs are used to running on rivers, which is where most of this year's race will happen.
Burmeister got the chance to return to the Iditarod when older brother Aaron, 41, decided to take a two-year break from racing to spend more time with his wife, Mandy, and their children, 8-year-old Hunter and 4-year-old Kiana.
Aaron finished third in 2015 and owns four top-10 finishes in 16 Iditarod starts. He said he'll be back next year, and in the meantime he's confident his dogs are in good hands.
"I have full faith and trust in Noah and in the dogs," Aaron said.
Noah ran puppy teams for Aaron back in 2004 and 2006, placing 52nd and 55th, respectively. Last year's team was made up of 2-year-olds. "They're all vets now," he said.
So is Noah, who said he gained knowledge last year about strategy and other aspects of racing.
"The race has changed," he said. "It's 24 hours faster since I'd run it last. That's a big difference."
Noah has eight lead dogs in his mix of 16 animals and all will be rotated into the lead. One of them is 9-year-old Moss, a veteran of seven Iditarods and the mother of some of the other leaders.
"She's a special dog, because she's finished every Iditarod she entered," Aaron said. "She's acting like a puppy again."
— Beth Bragg
Sister act: Twins stick together
What's the easiest way to tell the Berington twins apart?
Well, when they're racing, they'll tell you to look at their sled bags. If it's red-and-black, you're watching Anna. If it's blue-and-black, that's Kristy.
On Saturday, the Beringtons dished out a mixture of kibble, salmon and water to their sled dogs as they waited on Fourth Avenue for the ceremonial start to begin. They called it "cereal."
The Beringtons — the race's first set of twins — said they hoped to travel to Nome together again this year, unless, Kristy said, one of them is having a "magic carpet ride."
Last year, Kristy reached the finish line a few seconds before Anna, and the year before the order was swapped, with Anna finishing less than five minutes ahead of her sister.
"I don't think anyone is having more fun than us out on the trail," Kristy said.
— Tegan Hanlon
Iditarod connection since 1973
Leo Rasmussen has been at every Iditarod ceremonial start except one, missing the first one in 1973 because he was home in Nome.
But on Saturday he got a first-time experience — riding in a sled as this year's honorary musher.
Rasmussen, the official checker at the Nome finish line since 1973, gushed about his ride through Anchorage in the sled of Andrew Nolan, the recent Junior Iditarod race winner.
"Beautiful," said Rasmussen, his cheeks rosy. "If it was blowing like yesterday it would have been miserable for everyone but the dogs."
Nolan said he'll run the race next year when he's 18, old enough to qualify.
— Alex DeMarban
Anchorage Community House, a privately run community center, and AKontheGo, a website focused on family travel and outdoor recreation, handed out disposable cameras to young Iditarod spectators along the trail Saturday to engage children and families while boosting youth interest in the race.
"We hope to get a bird's-eye view from a kid's perspective," said Meg Zaletel, director of Anchorage Community House.
"We have to give instructions because it's not digital," she said. Kids were wondering where to immediately see the images they took, like they do on a cellphone.
"I got another one," 7-year-old Bering Kochanowski said as he snapped a photo of a passing musher.
— Alex DeMarban