Saturday, March 1, 2008

Start Your Dogs

With a whole lot of barking and yowling, the 36th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in downtown Anchorage this morning. From the moment the side streets surrounding 4th Avenue opened to mushers around 6:30 a.m., the atmosphere fairly crackeled with excitement.

Down in the staging areas early myself, I spent most of the morning talking with mushers, taking photos, and getting kissed. Sled dogs are a happy, loveable lot, and every outstretched hand meant another opportunity for some lovin'. I patted and petted hundreds of heads as I wandered among teams preparing for the 1,100 mile journey that really begins tomorrow in Willow, about 60 miles north of Anchorage.

The official starting time was slated for 10 a.m., and shortly before I staked out my spot along a snow berm 10 yards or so from the Starting Line, along with a pair of photographers from National Geographic, a CNN reporter, and a local radio personality that was calling in to her show via cell phone. Hoping my digital camera with no telephoto lens didn't give me away as an amateur, I nonetheless stretched GI-style across the berm to catch teams readying themselves for the call to "Go!"

Let me reinforce at this point an important clarification that continues to be contentious among animal rights organizations. These dogs LOVE to run! As soon as the harnesses and tug lines come out of their trucks and the booties go on their feet, these athletes are the picture of unbridled enthusiasm. Each team is assigned at least 7 or 8 handlers to hold a dog or two as they await their turn to start (for this race, teams start every four minutes). Dogs waiting to go yip, bark, and sometimes shriek their impatience to begin the race with their favorite person. Mushers will usually take a moment before the start to go from dog to dog, holding their heads and murmuring a few words of encouragement, not that any is needed. When the final word is uttered by the start official, the team is released and immediately the team is absolutely silent, heading out to open trail awaiting them and them alone, in their way of thinking.

After about a quarter of the teams had mushed out of the start area, I returned home to gather up the rest of the family and transition to the end of the day's route, at Campbell Creek Airstrip, owned by the Bureau of Land Management and a short drive from the house.

A perfect place to view teams out on the trail, the Airstrip was uncrowded and quiet, with a view of the Chugach mountains providing a backdrop for incoming teams. The sun was out at this end of town and the boys busied themselves playing in the trees, popping out when a team would come by to say "Good Luck!"

Tomorrow is the big time, with different attitude for some serious racing. Today was the warm up; an Alaskan adventure in the making.

I will post race updates as they come in, should something interesting happen to any of the mushers I met today. Readers can also follow along at for daily posts and interviews. A post immediately after this one will be all photos.

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