ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Mushers and their dogs took a leisurely jaunt through Anchorage on Saturday in the ceremonial start of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 1,000-mile race kicked off in a festive mood as 66 teams posed with fans and sailed their sleds 11 miles on streets covered with trucked-in snow. Each sled carried an Iditarider, a fan who won the short ride at auction.
"Today is fun, with a capital F," said smiling veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in last year's race. "If you don't have a good time on Saturday with your dogs and all these fans, you're not in the right sport."
The event comes ahead of the real, competitive start of the race Sunday in Willow, 50 miles to the north. This is when teams leave the big crowds behind for remote terrain shared mostly with their dogs.
"Today we have fun. Tomorrow we're serious," defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, said Saturday between chatting with spectators and signing autographs for fans, including Bunky Nistler of Beach, N.D.
Nistler said the Iditarod was on her bucket list following her husband's death of cancer a year ago.
"I've been in love with the Iditarod for over eight years," she said. "This was my dream of a lifetime."
From Willow, where the race clock starts ticking, mushers and their dog teams will begin making their way through unforgiving wilderness toward the finish line in the old frontier town of Nome on Alaska's western coast. Before reaching their destination, the teams will cross mountains, frozen rivers and forests before hitting the wind-pummeled coast. They'll sign in at village checkpoints, sometimes stopping for mandatory layovers.
The winner will get a new truck and $50,400. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split between the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.