With the finish line in Nome nearly a thousand miles and several days away, 52 sled dog teams put on a show for fans Saturday at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
A mob of spectators and several hundred dogs filled downtown Anchorage, where snow was spread on streets overnight to provide a slippery surface for sleds to glide on.
Mushers chilled with dogs and fans as they waited their turn to leave Fourth Avenue in two-minute intervals for the race’s ceremonial start -- an 11-mile tour of the city via streets and trails.
The race clock doesn’t start ticking until Sunday’s 2 p.m. restart, when teams hit the trail at Willow Lake north of Anchorage.
The Iditarod is smaller this year, in terms of both mushers and dogs. The field of 52 is the smallest since 1989, when 49 mushers started, and a new rule trimmed the maximum size of teams from 16 dogs to 14.
Anja Radano, a Talkeetna woman who finished second-to-last in her rookie run last year, was the first musher to leave Saturday and will be the first to leave Sunday. Last to leave was Cindy Gallea, a 12-time finisher from Minnesota. The start order was determined during a Thursday night bib draw.
Radano and Gallea bookended a field that includes 17 women. No Iditarod has had a higher percentage of women (33.7) and only four races have had more. A record 26 women started in 2016.
A record-low 10 rookies are in the race. So are five champions, including reigning champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway. Also back are four-time champions Martin Buser, Jeff King and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
Conditions look good through the Alaska Range and on the Yukon River, both of which have plenty of snow. A lack of ice on the Bering Sea will keep teams inland when the race hits the coast, race marshal Mark Nordman said earlier in the week.
Teams are following the southern route this year, meaning they will pass through Iditarod, an abandoned gold-mining town and the namesake of the historic Iditarod Trail, which originally stretched from Seward to Nome.
The checkpoint at Iditarod marks the race’s halfway point, and the first musher to arrive there will receive $3,000 in gold.
A bigger prize – an estimated $50,000 and a new pickup truck – awaits at the end of the trail in Nome. Expect to see the winning team cross under the burled arch that marks the finish line on Tuesday or Wednesday, March 12-13.