Temperatures hovered around zero degrees in Anchorage on Saturday for the ceremonial start of the 51st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Race.
It was especially cold if you came from Australia five weeks ago, like musher Christian Turner, who was wearing a heavy duty jacket down to his ankles. He called it his “muumuu.”
“It’s basically an Arctic anorak, you can put all your normal clothes underneath it and the anorak goes over the top and keeps everything warm and everything compressed, it’s sorta like wearing a sleeping bag,” he said.
Turner was among 33 mushers and dozens of sled dogs who paraded down 11-miles of sunny city streets and trails, in front of fans and Alaska celebrity guests, like U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who called it a “perfect, beautiful day.”
Though enthusiasm was high, the crowd downtown was a bit smaller than most years. The number of teams is also the smallest in the race’s history, something that has prompted concern among some in the Iditarod community. But mushers said Saturday was just a time to celebrate the sport.
“There are 33 people who have dedicated their lives to the only 1,000-mile-race that’s happening this year. This is it,” said rookie Bridgett Watkins. “Let’s celebrate that.”
If it was a bit quiet downtown, the parties alongside Anchorage’s trails were as well-attended as ever. Hundreds gathered at what is known as “Trailgate,” where a DJ played music next to a bar built of snow, as costumed attendees danced and cheered on the dog teams passing nearby.
One of Trailgate’s founders, Zachary Mannix, was grilling hot dogs and marveling at how much the party has grown over the years.
“When we started, it was a few dozen people, maybe 50, 75,” Mannix said. “And, yeah, it’s just, it’s grown exponentially. I think, the last time we had one, we estimated between 500 and 700 people.”
“It’s a great time,” he said. “I do enjoy being with all my friends outside and having a good time. So that’s what this is all about.”
But for other spectators, like 10-year-old Madilynn Paup, Saturday marked their first Iditarod.
Madilynn of Santa Cruz, Calif., did a school project about the Iditarod when she was in first grade. She’s been into it ever since. This year, for an early 10th birthday present, her parents, Chris and Danielle Paup, decided to bring her to Anchorage to watch the start.
The biggest surprise? The large number of dogs.
“The way the teacher made it sound was that there was only a few dogs,” Madilynn said. “But there was, like, a lot of dogs.”
She was excited to collect dog booties that mushers tossed into the crowd Saturday. She said she wanted to bring them home for her cats. She thought one of them, Jet, could probably join a sled dog team.
“Yeah, one of our cats already goes for walks so he should be good soon,” she said.
As Iditarod teams snaked through the crowd, some mushers stopped to chat with fans or even eat hot dogs. Jason Mackey had another way of interacting with the crowd. He reached into his sled bag to show off his goodie bags.
“There’s probably 20 pounds of filled booties with candy,” he said.
He tossed those signed neon dog booties to kids along the trail.
Fans also passed out drinks to mushers, who sometimes weren’t ready for a cocktail at 10 a.m. Veteran Aaron Peck said he makes exceptions though.
“I only accept IPA, good quality beer, don’t hand me that light beer stuff. And hot dogs, I’m hungry so if anyone has a hot dog, that’s good,” he said, and laughed.
After the ceremonial start, mushers and their sled dogs will drive about an hour north to Willow for the official race start at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Knik musher Eric Kelly said he enjoys the time spent with mushing fans before the official race clock starts.
“It’s a great feeling to be in Willow and pull that hook, and be out on the trail. But I love meeting the people. We can’t do it without the fans, so I love to interact and get them as involved as we can.”
Here are some of our favorite photos from the day:
Alaska Public Media’s Mizelle Mayo, Liz Ruskin, Ben Matheson, Lex Treinen, Casey Grove and Tegan Hanlon contributed to this story.
Keep our Iditarod coverage thriving! Your support today helps fund journalism at Alaska Public Media. Click here to donate.