On Sunday, March 12, days before the Iditarod finished, a group of Chinese tourists arrived at Nome's Burled Arch after mushing the trail themselves.
But unlike the competitive finishers of Iditarod 2017, these first-time mushers had been aided in their run by a large entourage of traveling trail staff, with a bevy of specialized gear to match. Most of the tourists had never seen snow before embarking on the trip.
While the practice of running the Iditarod Trail recreationally isn't new, both the timing of this trip and the lavish scale of the accommodations requested by its participants made the journey exceptional. The epic excursion was facilitated by IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours, a tour company that will take paying customers on dog sled rides through the Alaska countryside.
Trail boss and previous Iditarod musher Danny Seavey said the first hurdle was logistics.
"One of the biggest setbacks was, they wanted to run this during the Iditarod," Seavey said. "So, who has 50 dogs and six tour guides and nine dog sleds and trucks and all that available during the Iditarod, right?"
With family racing on the Iditarod trail — grandson Dallas and son Mitch, the 2017 champion — Seavey estimates his family had around 100 dogs running simultaneously, including dogs being run by the Chinese tourists.
"This expedition was bigger than anything that's ever been done."
And while other mushers do offer similar experiences, Seavey said one thing distinguished this particular outing as unlike anything that had been attempted.
"I think the big difference is that those folks had some experience and knew what they were doing," he said. "These folks have mostly never seen snow. They'd been in Alaska for two days before we took off."
Getting logistics and tourists ready for a 979-mile trek wasn't easy. The group arrived in Anchorage on a Sunday and had until Tuesday to acquaint themselves with the dogs that would take them through an unfamiliar Alaska landscape.
"On Monday and Tuesday, we went on dog sled rides, and on Wednesday, we took off. So, they were about as green as you can get."
But by the time the group left Koyukuk or Nulato, Seavey reports they really started to get their legs. By the end of the trip, they were harnessing their own dogs and staying upright. Seavey said, "it was cool to see how much they improved over the course of two weeks."
Those two weeks were spent recreating the 979-mile journey from this year's Fairbanks start. And to do that, Seavey needed to amass an array of camping equipment and staff to help along the trail.
"I think we kept every outdoor shop in Alaska open this winter," joked Seavey. "We set up 17 tents every time we stopped. Each guest had their own, 10-by-12 (foot) Arctic oven (tent). (There was a) huge dining hall tent. We had a lot of local staff, and we had some great folks on each individual stretch of the trail."
The mushers' entourage included a team of roughly 30 people, consisting of translators, chefs, equipment haulers, film crew and pilots.
When the mushers got into Nome, a city crew helped organize the local reception, which gathered cheering crowds and a speech from Mayor Richard Beneville, who was dressed to the nines in a fancy parka and top hat. After their photo finish, in Iditarod fashion, the new mushers went to a private banquet to celebrate their trip.
Danny Seavey said this was one of his favorite trips down Front Street.
"It's always a little bit nerve-wracking. Between the cars and the pavement and the Board of Trade, you never know quite where you're gonna end up coming down the street with a dog team … But everybody went straight down the street and under the arch, which is about all I could hope for. I was pretty happy about that."
Following the group's journey across the tundra was a person who Seavey calls "the James Cameron of China." The trip across Alaska will be made into an hourlong film airing on the Chinese national television station. Seavey expects the film will amass a billion viewers. The tour company did not release the filmmaker's name.