“A thousand barking dogs in downtown Anchorage” is how I have described the scene at the Ceremonial Iditarod start to people over the years. I still don’t know if that does justice to the event, but it does start to paint the picture. I had been to the start a few times before, but the first time for Melissa – and was something she had wanted to see for a long time. The Ceremonial Start is just a big party. The official race start occurs the next day in Willow, AK and this split start takes all the stress off the Saturday start and allows it to be a celebration of the Last Great Race. The Iditarod is a race to celebrate the role of the sled dog in the history of Alaska. The race runs from Wasilla, just north of Anchorage, to Nome on the Bearing Sea, just under 1,000 miles of trail. An incredible feat when you consider that it is just the musher, a team of up to 12 dogs facing Alaska in the winter. For a more detailed history of the race, the routing, the teams and lots of photos, visit the Iditarod website.
The race starts at 10:00 on the first Saturday in March on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage. The street, blocked off by a fence to keep the spectators on the sidewalks, has a path about 10-20 feet wide of snow trucked in. The teams start at 2 minute intervals. Each team carries an “Iditarider,” someone who has bid for the chance to ride along with their favorite musher – the proceeds go to charity. The excitement levels are high for not only the crowds and mushers, but the excited dogs and ready to run! We watched a team “start” early because the dogs were so excited the musher couldn’t hold them back.
We hit the streets early to wander around the side streets and take time to look at the teams unloading equipment and preparing the dogs. The teams are friendly and enjoy the chance to talk with the crowds. The favorite mushers will always have a crowd around their trucks and some will sign autographs and pose for photos. The people watching is first-rate – the winter clothing ranges from high-end to true Alaskan. To get a good spot on the fence line, you will need to arrive early as the crowds start to build by about 9:15 or 9:30. We were about 200 yards from the starting line, and next time we would probably be a little farther from the starting line to give us a better view of the teams with fewer people waking along the street inside the fence. You can’t beat the starting line excitement, but if you want better photographs a little more distance will give you clearer shots.
The crowds cheer on their favorite mushers as they head down the street and most of the mushers play off the crowd and have fun. For 2013, teams came from not only Alaska, and the US, but from Russia, Norway and even a musher from Jamaica…yup, Jamaica. The Jamaican musher worked the crowd the entire way down the street.
Afterwards, you will want a warm lunch or coffee. For us, we went over to the Glacier Brewhouse on 5th Avenue for a great brunch and lots of hot coffee. We visited the Glacier Brewhouse twice during this trip, and I have visited several times before – the food is always wonderful. All of downtown is crowded, expect lines at the restaurants after the race, but everyone is in a great mood and having fun. The Iditarod Start is just one event happening in Anchorage that day, the afternoon brings the Running of the Reindeer – the subject of another post.
I’ll let Melissa give you her perspective when she has time.
For More About our Alaska Winter Adventure: