This story has been updated with an expanded article and more photos.
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With little of the usual fanfare, Canada’s Aaron Peck led a field of 46 mushers who took off Sunday from Deshka Landing for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The sky was blue and the sun was shining, but few people other than race personnel were on hand to watch teams begin their 852-mile journey on the historic wilderness trail.
It’s the shortest race in history, and one of the smallest fields too.
Rookie musher Sean Williams of Chugiak scratched on Sunday morning because of “a non-COVID-19-related family health concern,” the Iditarod reported.
COVID-19 mitigation plans rerouted the race to keep it out of communities on the Yukon River and the Norton Sound coast. That means dog teams won’t see the burled arch on Nome’s Front Street, where every other race has finished.
It also means the race won’t be 1,000 miles long this year -- and that Deshka Landing, a popular boat launching site near Willow, will serve as both start line and finish line.
The field of 46 is the smallest since 39 teams began the 1978 race. A field of 66 signed up, but 19 have dropped out, including defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway, who said pandemic-related travel restrictions derailed his plans to return.
The race marks the return of a champion and the final race of a fan favorite.
Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna, a four-time champion, is back for the first time since 2017, when four of his dogs tested positive for a banned substance, launching more than a year of controversy for Seavey and the Iditarod.
Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, a three-time runnerup, is making her 21st race her final Iditarod appearance. She finished second three years in a row from 2012-14 -- twice to Seavey and once to Seavey’s dad, three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
The field of 46 includes 12 rookies,13 women and four past champions -- Seavey, four-time winner Martin Buser, 2019 champion Pete Kaiser and 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom. Mushers range in age from 23 (Dakota Schlosser) to 69 (Cindy Gallea).
From Deshka Landing, teams head north to the Alaska Range and beyond. Once they reach the ghost town of Iditarod, they make a short loop in the old Iditarod Mining District before heading south for the return trip to Deshka Landing and a second, unprecedented crossing of the Alaska Range.
Here’s the start order and the bib numbers for this year’s mushers:
Iditarod start order
2) Aaron Peck, Grande Prairie, Canada
3) Pete Kaiser, Bethel
4) Kristy Berington, Knik
5) Jeremy Traska, Two Rivers (R)
6) Richie Diehl, Aniak
7) Jeff Deeter, Fairbanks
8) Dennis Kananowicz, Tolsona
9) Ramey Smyth, Willow
10 Nicolas Petit, Girdwood
11) Gunnar Johnson, Duluth, Minn.
12) Hal Hanson, Kenai (R)
13) Anna Berington, Knik
14) Ryne Olson, Two Rivers
15) Brenda Mackey, Two Rivers (R)
16) Riley Dyche, Fairbanks
17) Matt Hall, Two Rivers
18) Chad Stoddard, Anchorage (R)
19) Christopher Parker, Fairbanks (R)
20) Ryan Redington, Skagway
21) Brent Sass, Eureka
22) Joanna Jagow, Fairbanks (R)
23) Dallas Seavey, Talkeetna
24) Jessie Royer, Fairbanks
25) Wade Marrs, Willow
26) Michelle Phillips, Tagish, Canada
27) Will Troshynski, Fairbanks (R)
28) Mille Porsild, Denmark
29) Matt Failor, Willow
30) Joshua McNeal, Fairbanks (R)
31) Susannah Tuminelli, Willow (R)
32) Aliy Zirkle, Two Rivers
33) Travis Beals, Seward
34) Martin Buser, Big Lake
SCRATCHED 35) Sean Williams, Chugiak (R)
36) Aaron Burmeister, Nome/Nenana
37) Cody Strathe, Fairbanks
38) Lev Shvarts, Willow
39) Dakota Schlosser, Willow (R)
40) Dan Kaduce, Chatanika
41) Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Norway
42) Paige Drobny, Cantwell
43) Larry Daugherty, Eagle River
44) Jessie Holmes, Brushkana
45) Rick Casillo, Talkeetna
46) Cindy Gallea, Wykoff, Minn.
47) Sean Underwood, Talkeetna (R)
48) Victoria Hardwick, Bethel
(R) denotes Iditarod rookies