ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Fans, dogs and mushers returned in droves Saturday to downtown Anchorage in the midst of a snowstorm for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The ceremonial start was canceled last year due to the pandemic. This year, fans attending the 50th running of the race were limited in their interactions with participants but still were able to watch from behind fences as mushers left the starting line two minutes apart.
Mushers took a leisurely jaunt through Alaska’s largest city, waving at fans that lined downtown streets. The competitive race for mushers and their dogs starts Sunday in Willow, about 75 miles north of Anchorage, with the winner expected about nine days later in Nome.
Mushers had to show proof of vaccination to race this year, and they will isolate at checkpoints so they don’t bring Covid-19 to the rural, largely Alaska Native villages along the nearly 1,000-mile route to Nome.
Some villages opted not to be checkpoints because of the ongoing pandemic, leaving mushers to bypass towns, while other arrangements were made in some communities. In White Mountain, where mushers must take an eight-hour layover before making the final 77-mile run to Nome, the community building will not be used to house mushers waiting for the final push.
Instead, lumber was delivered, and an elaborate tent camp was being built, including new outhouses, race marshal Mark Nordman said.
There are 49 mushers in this year’s race, including defending champion Dallas Seavey, who is seeking to make history as the first musher to win six Iditarod titles. He’s tied with Rick Swenson with five victories apiece. Win or lose, the 35-year-old indicated this is probably his last race for a while as he wishes 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 raced in 2019, stepped in just this week to run in the place of Nic Petit, who announced on Facebook he had contracted Covid-19. Mitch Seavey, a three-time winner and Dallas’ father, is also back this year, as are 2018 winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser.
Fifteen mushers withdrew before the race started, including 2020 winner Thomas Waerner, who wasn’t allowed to travel to the U.S. from his native Norway.
Musher Jaye Foucher withdrew after her sled dog team in January veered onto a busy Alaska 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 heavy snow year in some parts of Alaska has made moose aggressive toward people in the backcountry, including mushers.
On a training run last month, rookie musher Bridgett Watkins had four of her dogs seriously injured by a moose, which wouldn’t leave and at times stood over 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 some financial hardship for the race by targeting big-name corporations, which have dropped sponsorships. The Anchorage hotel that has been the race headquarters for three decades will drop its affiliation next year.
Officials with the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel blamed the change on the pandemic’s effect on business, but the move was announced by its owners, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, a day before PETA planned to protest outside the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago.
Countering that, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach told reporters during a pre-race news conference that they have picked up six new sponsors this year.
“I think that’s a pretty big story for us,” he said.