By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Fifty-two mushers and their dog teams drove through Alaska's largest city in bright sunshine on Saturday to start the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Downtown Anchorage was temporarily converted into a noisy dog lot, with trucked-in snow covering the streets. Bundled-up spectators – including dignitaries such as Governor Mike Dunleavy and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski – gathered to cheer, snap photos and get autographs from the dog drivers headed out on the annual 1,000-mile (1,609-km) trek to Nome.
Saturday's 11-mile run through Anchorage was merely ceremonial, and featured a performance by an Inupiat dance team and other pageantry. Competition begins in earnest on Sunday, when teams take off from a frozen lake in Willow, a community about an hour's drive north from the city.
That gave mushers a chance to relax, mingle with fans and wax poetic about the significance of the Iditarod.
"It's an amazing one-of-a-kind event that I think everybody should experience," said four-time champion Lance Mackey.
As for this year's race, "I'm expecting the unexpected," he said. "I'm expecting soft trail, hard trail, lots of snow, no snow, mountains, flat, open water ice, all the things Alaska has to offer."
One feature of this year's race is a nearly ice-free section of the Bering Sea. Dramatic winter melt has removed sea ice that the mushers would normally cross on their approach to Nome. Mackey joked about that twist.
"I think I need a pontoon sled. They better not lead us up into the Bering Sea with open water, because I don't have real good swimmers," he said, motioning at his dogs.
Race managers rerouted the course so it skirts the now-open waters, adding an estimated 30 to 40 miles to the race.
This year's contest of 52 teams, a third of them headed by women mushers, is the smallest since 1989. While the top competitors can rely on corporate sponsors, other would-be racers say the high year-round costs of participating can be an obstacle.
Scott Janssen, an Anchorage funeral home owner and Iditarod veteran whose nickname is "The Mushin' Mortician," is sitting out this year after spending $118,00 to race in 2018.
Over the years, he has spent $800,000 to $900,000 on his Iditarod runs, "and my winnings are finally approaching $5,000," he said. "But it's worth it." This year, another musher, Travis Beals, is running Janssen's dogs.
But in many ways, Saturday's ceremonial start was similar to those of past years. There was the usual international flair, with 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway as the most prominent non-U.S. competitor.
"Dog mushing is very big in Norway now," Ulsom said before setting off from the Anchorage start line. Michi Konno, who moved to Alaska from Japan to pursue his sled-dog-racing passion, displayed on his sled a Japanese flag signed by well-wishers back home. Other countries represented in this year's field include Sweden, France and Ukraine.
The top contenders remain the same as in previous years, mushers said. Four-time champion Jeff King, embarking on his 29th Iditarod, listed a few names: Ulsom, Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska, and Nicholas Pettit of Girdwood, Alaska.
The top racers from last year are back, King said, "and I expect them to be highly competitive."
The total prize purse is about $500,000, with the winner taking about $50,000 and a new pickup truck. The winner is expected to reach Nome about eight or nine days after Sunday's official start in Willow.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)