In a year when many mushers are taking handguns on the trail as a precaution against marauding moose, Karin Hendrickson of Wasilla carried a big stick during Saturday’s ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
It was for protection against enthusiastic fans.
“I threw my shoulder out one year high-fiving, so now I just put out my stick,” Hendrickson said while standing on the runners of her sled, waiting for her turn to leave the downtown Anchorage start line. In one hand was her stick, about the size and weight of a yardstick, decorated with flowing blue ribbons.
Athletes all over the world do meet-and-greets with fans, but nothing quite compares to the one the Iditarod stages every year on the first Saturday in March.
Thousands of people crowded Fourth Avenue to get a look, a word or a selfie with their favorite mushers — or, if they’re lucky, to scratch the ears of a sled dog. Beyond downtown, hundreds hold parties along the trail, where one of their favorite things to do is high-five mushers as they drive by in their sleds.
Light snow fell Saturday as a field of 57 mushers left Fourth Avenue and D Street in two-minute intervals for an 11-mile trip across Anchorage. On Sunday at Willow Lake north of Anchorage, teams will start the race for real, leaving in two-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m.
From Sunday and beyond, it’s mostly all business as drivers and dogs travel the 1,000-mile trail to Nome. The trail this year is expected to be snowy and possibly moosey, because in deep snow the animals may be drawn to a trail that offers them easier mobility in their search for food. That’s why many mushers are arming themselves, so they are ready in case a moose stomps through their team.
But Saturday’s ceremonial start is about posing for photos, meeting fans, connecting with sponsors and talking to reporters. A well-armed musher on this day is equipped with good humor and patience.
G Street between Third and Fourth avenues was a veritable celebrity row. Four-time champion Martin Buser, perennial contender Aliy Zirkle, three-time champion Mitch Seavey and reigning Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass were among the mushers whose trucks and teams were parked there as they waited their turn to start.
In front of Seavey’s truck, three generations of Iditarod racers — family patriarch and race pioneer Dan; son Mitch, a three-time winner; and Dallas, a four-time winner — gathered for a family photo.
“We’ve got some of the Addams Family here,” joked Dan as the clan gathered around.
At Zirkle’s truck, Linda Steiner of Anchorage was working nonstop as a de facto press agent for Zirkle, a fan favorite from Two Rivers who always draws a crowd.
“She’s talking to Leslie at the fence, then she’s doing an interview, then we can take a photo,” Steiner told a couple of fans armed with phones and posters. Steiner made sure Zirkle knew what each person wanted, and she made sure there was some kind of order to it all.
Zirkle, a top-five finisher in six of the last eight races, gave out hugs and hellos with an unwavering smile.
“All these folks want to meet me, want to meet the dogs, so it’s cool when you can stand around and you can talk about (the dogs),” Zirkle said. “It’s fun to share with people.
“… You guys have never met my dogs before have you?” she said to two children standing nearby, who shook their heads in reply. “But now they get to meet me and they get to meet my dogs, and I think that’s an important part of the Iditarod. I mean, look at the truck behind me — there’s kids, and dogs jumping on kids, and they want to say hi. I don’t think people actually know that’s what it started with, was people and dogs. It didn’t start with racing.”
Next to Zirkle’s truck was Jeff Deeter’s, which had a sign hanging on it with the names of the 14 dogs he’s starting out with. At the top, separated from the others, was the name Knox.
“He’s my 15th dog. He’s sitting out," said Deeter, of Fairbanks “He’s 70 pounds. He’s not made for deep-snow travel.
"I told him last night -- ‘Sorry, bud.’ ”
And so when Deeter hitched his team to his sled as his start time neared, Knox stayed behind in the truck, meaning he missed some of the craziest scenes of the ceremonial start.
While downtown draws the biggest crowds and offers the best chances to mingle with mushers, once teams begin their short trip to Campbell Airstrip, things can get wild — and we aren’t talking about moose.
A number of parties are held along the trail, and the trailgaters know how to fun. They pass hot dogs and beers to passing mushers and, as Hendrickson can attest, they extend their hands to offer high-fives.
At Eastchester Park, hundreds of fans gathered along each side of the trail to raucously cheer on the mushers. The party had a bar, an ice luge and a couple of large platforms of snow for people to dance on. Anchorage Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson served up drinks for a time while her wife, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, worked as the PA announcer, feeding the mob with facts about various mushers as they came into the park.
Paige Drobny of Cantwell was the last musher to make the trip across Anchorage on Saturday, driving a team she thinks could be a contender. Last year, she and her dogs claimed seventh place.
“They finished with a lot of oomph. They had a lot left in them,” she said of the dogs. “When we finished, they were barking and they could’ve turned around and gone back to Anchorage."
Back to where it all starts, where Iditarod mushers get a sendoff to remember, especially if it leaves them with an injured shoulder.
Daily News reporter Aubrey Wieber contributed.