Spectators lined Fourth Avenue downtown as an announcer’s voice boomed overhead and sled dogs yipped and howled. Mushers coasted along city streets, a heavy snowfall blanketing much of Anchorage as throngs of fans turned out for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s ceremonial start Saturday.
A year after the pandemic paused start festivities, the Iditarod seemed to be back on track.
Fans raised beers and cheered as mushers and dog teams raced through their tailgate parties along the Chester Creek Trail. Some fans dressed up as penguins, others sat on a couch affixed to skis and plenty donned fur coats and hats.
The ceremonial start “gives people a chance to see the dogs and the equipment,” Martin Buser, a four-time race champion, said as he walked down a snow-covered downtown street. “And a little bit of fresh snow makes the trail more forgivable … it bodes well for the next 1,000 miles.”
Anticipation, for mushers and fans
The competition this year is stiff, Willow musher Lev Shvarts said. “This race is absolutely cutthroat,” he said.
Standing next to Shvarts downtown, Karin Hendrickson, also from Willow, said that Saturday was really just a party — it’s her 10th year racing the Iditarod.
“I don’t get nervous until I start hearing countdowns, and then I get butterflies,” Hendrickson said.
This year’s field of 49 mushers includes 13 rookies and six former champions.
Paige Drobny said she’s entering the race feeling calm. This is her eighth Iditarod.
Her team this year feels so strong that she said on Saturday she had yet to finalize which dogs she planned to take on the trail — 17 made the trip from her remote home about 54 miles off the road system near Cantwell.
“They all deserve the chance,” she said. “They love racing. They love going out and doing what they do. So having to tell some of them that they don’t get to go after all the hard work they put in is really hard.”
Buser said he’s taking out his A team of dogs, but “with the B driver.”
“The winning dogs have to drag a camper around,” Buser said with a laugh.
Farther down Fourth Avenue, as the mushers and their dogs were heralded with cheers and whoops, Vernita Strang, 79, Beth Bowen, 73, and Nancy Chastain, 72, stood against the fence watching.
They love Alaska. It’s their 20th or so trip up to the state. Bowen and Chastain traveled from Columbia, South Carolina, while Strang came from Washington state. The three became friends when Strang, who lived in Anchorage for about 30 years and worked at a downtown deli, served Chastain and Bowen.
They came up for the Iditarod, Fur Rendezvous and the weather.
“It’s like coming home — I love it here,” Chastain said.
A few miles down the trail, Shannon Davenport stood along the fence near the Alaska Native Medical Center and clutched her phone. She wanted to cheer on Eagle River rookie musher Matt Paveglio, a fellow nurse, and snag a photo of him zipping by.
“He’s been taking care of patients,” she said. “So it’s neat to see someone who is in our field out here doing something completely out of our realm. … We’re so proud to see one of our own out there.”
To have the race resume more normally and to see crowds out supporting mushers felt hopeful, she said.
“It’s such an exciting time to not think about COVID and not think about what we deal with every day — and what we’re still dealing with,” Davenport said.
The life of the trail party
The party on the Chester Creek Trail near East 20th Street began once Julie Sweetin arrived.
In one hand, she clutched a microphone. In the other, she held a beer. On her hat sat the pelt of a white ermine — “a Texas polar bear,” she said — and her cheeks sparkled with glitter.
Sweetin, who lives in Anchorage, said she stumbled into the unofficial role of trail party announcer by accident. As mushers would come down the trail, she’d tell her friends different things about the competitors.
“Then one year, they put a microphone in my hand, like three years ago,” she said. “Now it’s gotten more official.”
By midday Saturday, the trail was crowded. Champagne chilled in the fresh snow and children tubed on a nearby hill. A pair of Pomeranians barked as sled dogs passed. Music blared from a speaker behind Sweetin as she welcomed mushers to the party.
As dog teams passed by, Sweetin kept up a running commentary with a mix of musher information, jokes and fun facts.
For Denmark’s Mille Porsild: “Did you all notice she wears a ski boot?”
For rookie Amanda Otto of Denali Park: “She first stepped on the runner out of Ashton, Idaho, when she was 8 years old.”
And when Willow musher Matthew Failor passed by: “The best thing about Matt Failor is his wife is so nice!”
The crowd was a mix of people looking for a fun party and die-hard Iditarod fans. Rachel Ellis falls into the latter category; she fell in love with the sport when she moved to Bethel in 2017.
Ellis, an intensive care unit nurse who now lives in Anchorage, said watching sled dog races helped get her through the pandemic because it gave her something happy to look forward to during a difficult time.
Ellis keeps up with the racers through the news and follows them on social media. She’s met several mushers — a true celebrity experience for her.
The ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage was canceled last year as a precaution for COVID-19, but Ellis said she and several friends trekked out to the restart in Willow — and she plans to return Sunday as mushers embark on their journey to Nome.
Her friend Kimberly McClure will be there too, extending her first Iditarod experience. Decked out in a fur jacket with a koozie necklace holding up a can of beer, McClure shouted and cheered Saturday.
Sweetin’s unofficial announcing was the highlight of the party, she said. But would it continue Sunday?
“God, I hope so,” McClure laughed.