One thing I knew I had to do when I moved up here was to be a part of something that today.
The Iditarod, the 1000 mile dog sled race to Nome, AK, began with the ceremonial start through the streets and parks of Anchorage. Each musher and sled team is released in race order every few minutes. The course starts downtown under the great race banners and next to the bronze statue of the legendary lead dog Balto. It runs down 4th street then turns south at Cordova. The route goes ironically one block away from my old temporary apartment before a heavy downhill towards the baseball fields before entering a greenway running along a quiet stream, crossing major roads on bike paths, then ending near Campbell Airstrip ironically passing by where I saw a bear the first week I was here. It’s eleven miles in total
While it has some appearances of being a part of the actual race, it is nothing more than parade laps like you would see before a NASCAR or Formula One race. Today isn’t timed and any passes doesn’t change any rankings. There usually isn’t a full dog team; most teams start the race with 16 dogs but most ran today with 10 or 12. Each musher also ran with at least one VIP rider in the sled, sometimes two mostly on a second sled attached to the team. With a thousand miles of solitary trails, today is important for team’s sponsors or to give thanks for key people who got the teams to the start and who will help them get to the end.
The real fun of the day is that for most of us who don’t live in the villages and towns along the trail, this is the only chance we get to see the teams. It’s seeing those teams that changes my opinions about the race. For one, the dogs are so small compared to what I expect. While Huskies are the traditional breed, these looked a little less fuzzy and more athletic. They were still definitely dogs though. At one point, a dog in a yard near the trail barked and an entire sled team turned to bark back. When crowds got loud along the trial, you can see them looking around and wagging at the attention. While I was wandering around in the “pits” you can see teams feeding pups cookies and giving them a pet just to share some loving.
But I loved the mushers reaction. These men and women worked all year in nearly a full time role to prepare their team for the big race ahead of them. While what they will be facing the next 10 to 15 days will be grueling and lonely, what they got today was easy love. Crowds cheered for each of the 68 teams and reached out into the track for a little hi-5 action. Mushers were fantastic in return. Most threw booties (the boots the dog’s wear and go through pretty quickly) as souvenirs to cheers of “Booty Booty Booty” (though it was uncomfortable when kids kept saying ‘here comes a team, time for another booty call’). It was common for us to clap and yell “Good Luck” to the teams. What was just as common is when I called out “Good Luck”, the musher would reply “Thank You”. One musher saw my Green Bay Packer jacket and yelled at me “Watch out for that one, he’s a Packer fan”, I yelled back “Don’t make me root for you to come in second!”
The ultimate moment happened when Lance Mackey, a 4-time winner of the Iditerod and the only dog sledder to be nominated for an ESPY, came down a hill to a crowd of kids all holding up signs and cheering him. As he approached, he stopped the team and waved at one kid with the sign. He put him up on the sled, posed for a picture, waved, then had the kid hop off to continue the race. The guy could have just waved, smiled, and went on … but he stopped and gave thanks back.
One thing I knew I had to do when I moved up here was to see the start of the Iditarod; and I am so glad I didn’t miss it.