WILLOW – Dog teams whisked past hundreds of spectators on a frozen lake before climbing a small hill and disappearing into the woods at the official start of the Iditarod on Sunday.
Local resident Lori Townsend was the first musher to leave on the more than 1,100 mile journey to Nome in western Alaska.
Townsend, 43, kissed her husband and jumped on her sled, just seconds before handlers let her 16 sled dogs go tearing across the snow.
"I just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge," said the Iditarod veteran from Willow, explaining why she chose the first starting position in a field of 83 teams.
Competitors were allowed to select their starting positions for the first time this year rather than doing the traditional blind draw.
Mushers left the starting chute every two minutes, sending up knee-high fountains of snow behind their sleds as they stepped hard on the brakes to slow their excited teams.
The first checkpoint is Yetna, about 42 miles away, followed by the town of Skwentna another 40 miles up the thick ice of a glacial river. Most mushers will likely head straight through the first two stops to the third checkpoint at the Finger Lake cabin, 40 miles beyond Skwentna.
Mushers were looking forward to good conditions, meaning there would be enough snow for sled brakes to catch, but not enough to make trail breaking too difficult.
"We've got a load of snow out there," said Lance Mackey of Kasilof, a cancer survivor who has won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race for the last two years.
Mackey, 35, is also a three-time Iditarod finisher, but said he's never had a worse case of pre-race jitters.
"I'm more nervous about today than I have been ever," said Mackey, who came in seventh last year. "I think I actually have a shot at this and I don't want to screw up."
Mackey was diagnosed with cancer after the 2001 Iditarod. He's now one of the few mushers running the Iditarod about two weeks after tackling the Yukon Quest through Alaska and Canada. He said nine of the dogs who ran this year's Quest are on his Iditarod team.
"We're warmed up and ready to go," Mackey said.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in its 34th year, will take mushers and dog teams over two mountain ranges, across frozen seas and rivers, and through a treacherous gorge, where an avalanche in February killed an Iditarod volunteer grooming the trail.
Competitors will drive through 24 checkpoints in wilderness cabins and in some of Alaska's tiniest villages before heading up the windy western coast to the old gold mining town of Nome.
The Iditarod alternates between two routes each year. Most mushers consider this year's route, which loops north at almost halfway, less difficult than last year's southern route. More frequent snowmobile traffic on large sections of the northern trail keeps it better defined, according to many mushers.
Top finishers usually arrive in Nome in nine to 10 days. The fastest time was set in 2002 by four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, who pulled into Nome in eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes.
The field also includes four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., and the Iditarod's only five-time champ, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers. Jeff King of Denali is looking for his fourth win.
Swingley, 52, said he chose to start fifth because he would match Swenson's record with a win this year.
"I figured I may as well take number five, because that's how many wins I need," said Swingley, who in 1995 was the first musher from outside Alaska to take the race.
The reigning champion, Robert Sorlie of Norway, is not competing. He is rotating Iditarod runs with another Norwegian and his nephew, Bjornar Andersen, whose fourth-place finish last year was the highest ever for a rookie.
Sorlie sported a furred Viking hat painted in the red, white and blue hues of Norway's flag as he helped Andersen prepare for the start.
"We've been planning it this way," Sorlie said. "Next year I will do the race." Sorlie will follow Andersen along the trail in a plane. Race rules forbid him from giving his nephew any coaching or help in caring for the dogs.
Willow served as a stand-in starting area for the third straight year because of scarce snow in the traditional start town of Wasilla, about 30 miles north of Anchorage.
This year's top 30 finishers can expect to split a $795,000 pot. Another $40,000 will be divvied up among the remaining arrivals to Nome. The winner will pocket $69,000 and receive a new pickup valued at almost $45,000.
The race commemorates a dogsled relay in 1925 that carried serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to stop a diphtheria outbreak.