Thousands of fans line the street, the loudspeaker reverberates for many blocks from the starting line, and teams and handlers put on quite a show as they make their way out of town. Every team has two sleds and three passengers- the racer, a handler, and a paid Iditarider. Many teams have developed matching costumes for their handlers. Interviews, autographs, pictures, waves— all part of putting on this unique Alaska event. Team Baker has a huge group of handlers, one per dog it seems, and each has a leash on the line as they march to the starting line. Early Iditarod racer, ken Chase, pointed out that in the first years of the race, Anchorage was the actual start, and he recalled going to the starting line with no handlers. Obviously, 10 or more handlers are not needed, but it is a chance for more folks to take part in the event. As my daughter Sarah said as she helped a team to the start a few years ago, it made her feel like she was helping in the race, even though she wasn’t.
For some old timers, the ceremonial start represents a sort of reunion....a chance to check in with the small but far flung community of long distance racers who seldom interact outside of this event. A stroll down the starting area today put me next to friends I hadn’t seen since last year’s start. Some are still racing! Rudy Demoski first took part in the 1974 Iditarod, and is back now at age 67. Sonny Lindner raced in the 70’s and is still at it. One notable old timer missing from the field for the first time in recent memory is five time champion Rick Swenson. A bad back, and a few dogs short of the team he wanted to have in the race caused him to withdraw late. Others just walk the street. Past champion Dick Mackey, at 80, still looks like he could handle a team of dogs. Another champ, Joe Runyan, gathers information for the Iditarod web page and produces excellent reports.
Rural Alaska is well represented in this year’s race. In addition to John Baker from Kotzebue, there are seven other teams who qualify as rural mushers: Louie Ambrose, Josh Cadzow, Richie Diehl, Demoski, Pete Kaiser, and the Williams pair, Mike Sr. and Mike Jr. This is a welcome change from a trend away from rural teams a few years ago. Not only does Bush Alaska have a good number of teams, but also high quality. Three of the seven are serious contenders for the top spot, and a couple more are likely top 20 teams.
Many race commentators spend the days before the race predicting the winner. Not so here! There are about a dozen teams that would easily qualify as serious contenders to win, and another small group that could surprise and end up on top. There are too many variables to make a reasonable prediction of who will win before they start racing. Predictions start to make some sense after a few days of racing, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you are within driving distance, catch the real start at Willow tomorrow.