Fans, dogs and mushers returned in droves Saturday to downtown Anchorage amid a snowstorm for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race.
The departure ceremony was canceled last year due to the pandemic. This year, fans attending the 50th edition of the race were limited in their interactions with the participants, but were still able to watch behind the fences the mushers leaving the start line at two-minute intervals.
The mushers took a leisurely stroll through Alaska’s largest city, waving to fans who lined the downtown streets. The competitive race for mushers and their dogs begins Sunday in Willow, about 120 miles north of Anchorage, with the winner expected about nine days later in Nome.
Mushers had to show proof of vaccination to run this year, and they will isolate themselves at checkpoints so as not to bring COVID-19 to rural, largely Alaska Native villages along the nearly 1,000 mile (1,609 kilometer) route to Nome.
Some villages have opted out of being checkpoints due to the ongoing pandemic, leaving mushers to bypass towns, while other arrangements have been made in some communities. At White Mountain, where mushers must make an eight-hour layover before making the final 77-mile (124 kilometer) run to Nome, the community building will not be used to house mushers awaiting the final push.
Instead, timber was delivered and an elaborate tented camp was built, including new outbuildings, race marshal Mark Nordman said.
There are 49 mushers in this year’s race, including defending champion Dallas Seavey, who is looking to make history as the first musher to win six Iditarod titles. He is tied with Rick Swenson with five wins apiece. Win or lose, the 35-year-old said it was likely his last race for some time as he wants to spend more time with his pre-teen daughter.
Also in the race are two four-time winners, Martin Buser and Jeff King.
King, who last ran in 2019, stepped in this week to run in place of Nic Petit, who announced on Facebook that he had contracted COVID-19. Mitch Seavey, three-time winner and father of Dallas, is also back this year, as are 2018 winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser.
Fifteen mushers withdrew before the start of the race, including 2020 winner Thomas Waerner, who was barred from traveling to the United States from his native Norway.
Musher Jaye Foucher pulled out after his sled dog team in January veered onto a busy Alaskan highway and collided with a pickup truck, killing one of the dogs and injuring three others.
Moose are a concern for mushers on the trail this year. A year of heavy snowfall in parts of Alaska has made moose aggressive toward backcountry dwellers, including mushers.
During a practice run last month, rookie musher Bridgett Watkins had four of her dogs seriously injured by a moose, which wouldn’t leave and sometimes stood on top of the dogs. The incident only ended when a friend shot the bull moose with a high-powered rifle.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals remains the race’s biggest critic and has caused the race financial hardship by targeting large corporations, which have dropped sponsorships. The Anchorage hotel that has been home to the race for three decades will drop its affiliation next year.
Officials at the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel blamed the change on the effects of the pandemic on business, but the decision was announced by its owners, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, a day before PETA planned to protest outside the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago.
Against this, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach told reporters at a pre-race press conference that they had signed up six new sponsors this year.
“I think it’s a pretty big story for us,” he said.