Diana and Jerome Peters hung over the temporary fence lining Fourth Avenue in Anchorage Friday afternoon. As the dogs dashed by they held hands, their faces in awe as they marveled at the sights. Four-wheelers with plows strapped to the front ends drove by, occasionally fixing the arrangement of snow. Snowmachines zoomed up and down the historic street, and dog teams yipped and jumped anxiously, awaiting their turn to sprint. What a sight it must be for outsiders like the Peterses, Jerome and Diana, who chose to spend their 60th wedding anniversary in the Last Frontier instead of their normal vacation hot spot in Florida.
"We've been reading about mushing in Alaska for many years," Diana Peters said. "Last year we said, 'what the hell, we ain't dead yet.' So we booked our tickets, and here we are, really doing this. This is spectacular, though. I mean, dog racing in the heart of a city."
The World Championship Sled Dog Races are one of several events that kick off Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage's annual winter festival. Mushers begin in downtown Anchorage, later winding through the city's forests and along main roads before heading back downtown.
The sprint mushing races have drawn elite competitors since they began in 1946. This year Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, skipping the Iditarod, is racing his team in the three-day competition that totals 75 miles. It's the first time Mackey has competed in the Rondy World Championship sprint race and his team of puppies couldn't keep up.
Mackey, the four-time Iditarod champion, finished last on Friday, covering the 25-mile course in 107:31 -- far slower than first place finisher Arleigh Reynolds of Salcha (90:57) and second-place Egil Ellis of Willow (92:26). Reynolds, who works in animal medicine at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the defending champion.
The Peterses said they plan to spend the evening playing at the carnival. Jerome laughed and said it had been about 40 years since he rode a Ferris wheel. At the mention of the cherished ride, a small girl nearby bundled in a pink down jacket smiled and told him it was too cold for that.
The freezing temperatures of the winter festival, however, are often just as much a staple of the historic celebration as dog racing, the rides and animal furs. "One year our men's chorus had a float in the parade. And I just remember being up there singing and it was 10 below zero. I will never forget that," said Ed Koontz as he sold Fur Rondy buttons. On Friday spectators were dressed for the 3-degree weather, a mild temperature, according to Koontz.
Koontz added that the first day of fun was slow, but by Saturday he expects downtown to be "a zoo." The weekend is scheduled for events like the outhouse races and fireworks show on top of the daily carnival.
The festival has changed a lot, said Koontz, whose Midnight Sun Men's Choir has been selling Fur Rondy buttons since the 1980s. Compared to 1935, when the festival began, Rondy is hardly the same.
The original celebration was only three days; it included a sports tournament with boxing, skiing, hockey, basketball and children's sled dog races. In the 1950s, the blanket toss was added to the list of events.
"Oh, sure it's not the same as when I was a kid," said 60-year-old Jeanie Ratton, dressed in head-to-toe fur. "But it's still just as wonderful. I will be coming to this until I die. You're never too old to Rondy."
Contact Megan Edge at megan(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @megtedge.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing