MARK THIESSEN, Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The sound of howling dogs filled downtown Anchorage on Saturday as mushers from around the world gathered for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
About 2,000 dogs belonging to 72 mushers are waiting their turn to hit the trail this year. The race spans nearly 1,000 miles along Alaska’s frozen Bering Sea coast, ending in the community of Nome.
The ceremonial start is a fan-friendly event designed to show off mushing to fans in Alaska’s largest city. Spectators can pet the dogs, mingle with mushers and even grab an autograph or two.
Racers then leave the downtown area every two minutes in a staggered start with an Iditarider — people who won auctions for a prime spot in a competitor’s sled — for an 11-mile course on city trails and streets.
City crews trucked in snow overnight to make the streets ready for the dog sleds.
Anchorage had more than enough snow to stage the ceremonial start. But just a few hundred miles north, the Alaska Range — a mountain span that includes Denali — has little snow and open-water conditions.
That has prompted race officials to move the competition’s official start from the Anchorage area, over the mountain range to Fairbanks to avoid the dodgy spots. It’s the second time in the past three years, and third in the past 14, that the race has had to move to Fairbanks to find suitable winter conditions to start.
But there is good news for mushers and dogs making the journey to Nome.
“There’s lots of snow on the trail,” race marshal Mark Nordman said after surveying the route late last week. “Lots of deep snow. And when we’re on the (Yukon) river, it’s a freeway.”
The official start of the race is Monday.
Dallas Seavey, who turned 30 on Saturday, has won four of the last five Iditarods. He’s looking to join Rick Swenson as the race’s only five-time winners.
Five other mushers have four wins, but no one in the past quarter-century has captured the elusive fifth title.
A rule change this year will allow mushers to carry satellite or cellphones for the first time ever. The rule change was prompted after a drunken man on a snowmobile last year charged at two teams in separate attacks, killing one dog and injuring others.
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