After a one-year hiatus, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officially returns to Willow for the start this Sunday. Mushers will leave the starting line at 2 p.m., in two-minute intervals. For the mushers, this is the start of a 1,100-mile journey to Nome, with their teams of 16 huskies.
This is the 46th running of the Iditarod, and I've always been fascinated by the race. When I was a child, the race started in downtown Wasilla, and I remember Knik-Goose Bay Road was lined with spectators cheering the teams on as they went past. It was almost like a college football tailgate party the entire length of KGB Road to Knik Lake, with an electric atmosphere that was one of the highlights of the winter.
Fast forward a few years, and I had another Iditarod experience that I'll never forget. After returning from college, I was a sportswriter at the Frontiersman, the local newspaper. I got to cover the Iditarod, but it turned into being so much more than just a story. My dad and I loaded our snowmobiles and a trailer and set off for Willow, where the restart was taking place. After covering the mushers leaving the starting line, we headed up the trail on our snowmobiles - while I was there to cover the race, it was also a father/son trip that meant a lot.
We stopped along the route to take pictures, have lunch and enjoy the day. We pulled into Skwentna, an Iditarod checkpoint, well ahead of the mushers. What struck me was the hospitality of the people who lived in the remote village. We were welcomed into their home, which served as the checkpoint. As the mushers started arriving, they served food and beverages to anyone who wanted. The race was a completely different experience after you left the starting line - you realized that these mushers are regular people living a lifelong dream by running the Iditarod, and the communities they visit along the trail roll out the red carpet for them. Other than the starting line, every community the Iditarod visits along the route is completely off the road system, so having the race come through is like hosting a Super Bowl to them.
After talking with mushers and getting my story done for the paper, my dad and I took out our sleeping bags and found a spot on the floor, next to some of the mushers. What other sporting event in the world would that possibly happen? It was surreal to say the least. The next morning, we headed back to town, making the four hour snowmobile ride in sub-zero temperatures. It was a trip I'll never forget, since it was the first time I got the opportunity to cover an event as a professional that I loved as a child, and also because it was an two-day adventure in the backcountry of Alaska that I got to share with my dad.
Check out these images from fans of the Iditarod: