We were disheartened to hear that the Iditarod restart moved from Willow to Fairbanks for 2017, but understand the need for the switch due to unsafe conditions along the route. And while the race won't be starting in the Mat-Su Valley, there is a long history between the Mat-Su and the race.
Many Iditarod mushers, including three-time champion Dallas Seavey, call the Mat-Su Valley home. Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe and Vern Halter are a few other big-name mushers of the past and present who operate their kennels in the area, and many offer tours of their kennels throughout the year. The Iditarod race headquarters is also located in Wasilla, and is open year-round for visitors to learn more about the famous race.
The Iditarod for me became a personal experience, although I've never mushed a team of huskies. Almost 20 years ago, I was a cub reporter at our hometown newspaper in Wasilla, covering the sports beat. When Iditarod rolled around that first winter, it was my chance to cover a national event, just a few months after college. I had grown up watching the race, but it was the first time I had a chance to cover it up close and personal. It left a lasting impression on me.
The restart in Willow was much like any other restart I had been to as a child. My father and I snowmobiled to the checkpoint of Skwentna from the start. Skwentna gave me my first indication that this race isn't always like you see on the television. Standing next to the mushers as they prepared hay beds for their dogs, preparing their team's meals and then finding something to eat for themselves, I realized that this wasn't a race as much as it was a way of life for them. The mushers were extremely gracious and personable. I realized this is an "Alaska" thing - would an athlete at the top of their sport take time to talk to a young guy with a camera and a notepad? Dee Dee Jonrowe did - she took 10 minutes to talk to me about how the race was going, what she's thinking and much more, even though she didn't know me from the next guy.
The Iditarod is one of the most unique sporting events in the world, and one that provides spectators with unparalleled access to its athletes. If you ever have a chance to watch the ceremonial start in Anchorage or the restart (hopefully in Willow), make sure you take the time. You'll find athletes dedicated to their dogs, a true Alaska spirit and a lifetime of dedication from the mushers.