WILLOW — The 50th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is officially underway after mushers departed from Willow Lake in the race’s restart Sunday, beginning the long journey to Nome.
Under sunny, bluebird skies with plenty of snow on the ground, rookie Sean Williams of Chugiak was the first musher to speed down the race chute, leaving at 2 p.m. with 14 dogs in harness. Timing differentials are equalized when mushers take their mandatory 24-hour rests later in the race.
Mushers staged at Willow Lake on Sunday amid relatively warm conditions, sled dogs yipping as the announcer counted down each team’s departure.
Among them was defending champion Dallas Seavey, who turned 35 on Friday. The Talkeetna musher is on the verge of becoming the Iditarod’s winningest musher — he’s tied with Rick Swenson for the most victories, at five — and plans to take a break from the race after this year.
On Sunday, his 11-year-old daughter, Annie, said she was looking forward to Seavey finally getting a chance to take some time to “actually celebrate (his) birthday for once.”
“He never really gets to celebrate it,” Annie said. “March 4 is all busy, busy, busy.”
A short distance down the trail at Long Lake, clusters of spectators — some in furs, some in camouflage — gathered around wood fires, snowmachines and folding chairs.
They cheered every passing musher and handed them the occasional beer or miniature bottle of cinnamon whiskey. Helicopters, small planes and drones buzzed overhead.
Just getting to the restart was a headache for some Iditarod fans. An accident near the Mirror Lake exit north of Eagle River shut down northbound traffic on the Glenn Highway, causing delays for many heading to Willow from Anchorage. After the accident was cleared, the backlog of cars and trucks started moving again by about 12:30 p.m.
On Saturday, hundreds of spectators were on hand in downtown Anchorage for the ceremonial start — with many more elsewhere along the route through town — as heavy snow blanketed Fourth Avenue and the surrounding side streets where dog teams were staged.
This year’s race field includes 13 rookies and 36 veterans, including six past champions. That’s just a few more mushers than the field in the 2021 race, which took place as COVID-19 concerns — at a time when vaccines had only recently started rolling out — prompted major Iditarod changes. Last year’s race broke from tradition by rerouting competitors through what was named the Gold Loop Trail, running out to the Iditarod Mining District before circling back to the Railbelt.
This year, the race is following the traditional northern route through the Yukon towns of Ruby and Galena on the way to Nome.
The Iditarod’s organizers have imposed public health and virus testing protocols to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, and several checkpoints along the trail have modified their accessibility to limit community contact. The small town of Takotna, famed as a hospitable option for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour rest and enjoy a generous spread of homemade pies, opted not to be part of this year’s race.
Mushers will begin arriving at the Skwentna Roadhouse checkpoint Sunday evening and overnight. Typically by Monday, they start their ascent up the Alaska Range toward the Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake before transiting the actual Rainy Pass on their way to the shelter cabin at the Rohn checkpoint.
That stretch tends to be one of the most technical and challenging portions of the trail. Thick snowpack in the area, according to race marshal Mark Nordman, has made for good trail conditions, including in the notoriously bruising Dalzell Gorge.
Though deep snow along portions of the route may slow the race down slightly, a winner is expected to arrive in Nome early next week.