Iditarod XLVI: 67 mushers are on their way to Nome
Sixty-seven mushers and their teams gathered in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, March 2 for the ceremonial start of the 46th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Overcast skies, temperatures in the 20s and snow flurries with enough snow on the streets made conditions ideal for huskies and mushers alike, while thousands and thousands of spectators lined Fourth Avenue and the rest of the 11-mile long ceremonial trail from downtown to Campbell Airstrip.
There were tailgate parties along the way, lots of flag-waving and kids perilously diving across snowberms to get a high-five from smiling mushers as they ran their 12-dog teams through the city.
Governor Bill Walker and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott roamed the avenue, guided by surprise withdrawal musher John Baker of Kotzebue, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski made an appearance, and Mayors Ethan Berkowitz (Anchorage) and Richard Beneville of Nome were on hand to greet the crowds and give interviews. “Hello Central”.
The enthusiasm for the iconic race, which takes mushers and their sled dogs through 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness, was not visibly dampened by controversy surrounding its governing body nor the announced protests by the animal rights activist group PETA.
Only a handful of protesters were there as they stood next to a staged “funeral” of stuffed toy dogs symbolizing sled dogs that died during the Iditarod. Their presence was drowned out by the masses of people cheering on the mushers as they left the start line one by one. The emcee welcomed the crowds and even extended a warm welcome to “the race’s detractors, who are present.”
The first to leave the start line was Junior Iditarod Champion Bailey Schaeffer of Kotzebue and Willow. The 17-year-old daughter of mushers Tracey and Chuck Schaeffer carried in her sled the widow of Honorary Musher Joee Redington Jr., Pam Redington. Joseph “Joee” Redington died on August 14, 2017 at the age of 74. He was the oldest son of Joe Redington Sr., who is known as the “Father of the Iditarod.”
The field this year is a bit thinner than in years past, and does not include four-time champion Dallas Seavey, who in protest withdrew from the race. Last year, four of his dogs at the finish in Nome tested positive for the drug Tramadol. Seavey maintains he did not administer the drug and accuses the ITC of bungling how the situation was handled. Seavey is now in Norway competing in the Finnmarksløpet 1,000-kilometer dog race, which begins on March 9.
Also not on the start line is four-time Iditarod and Quest Champion Lance Mackey.
But back on the trail is defending champion Mitch Seavey, Dallas’ father. Asked what his plan for this year’s race is, he said with smile, “Pretty much the same as last year. If you have a formula that’s working, you don’t change it too much.”
“We made some improvements, some minor tweaks and it’s a little different trail, little different conditions, so we’ll adapt to that,” Seavey said. After years of bad snow conditions, which forced the race to relocate to a Fairbanks to Nome route, this year’s race returns to the southern route along the traditional Iditarod Trail, to halfway point Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Eagle Island and on to Kaltag, Unalakleet and up the coast to Nome. Instead of hard, fast trails of low snow years, this race can expect deep snow in places along the route less traveled. Still, Seavey said his dogs seem to favor tough conditions and that he has a veteran team that is well prepared. “The dogs are a little bit older, it’s mostly the same team as last year, but no three-year olds, everybody is four- to seven-years-old. I have some different expectations for some of them. I think we’re in good shape.” He added that he has the same leaders as last year and said that he “loaded up on leaders” but by the time of this writing, Seavey already had to drop last year’s Golden Harness award winner and his main leader Pilot due to an injury.
Aaron Burmeister returns to the race after a two-year hiatus, during which time his younger brother Noah Burmeister ran the Iditarod. Aaron said at the start of his 17th Iditarod that he was really excited to be back. He said he had moved the dogs to Nome to train them at his camp at the Kuzitrin and then moved them back to Nenana to train and camp with them all winter. “They’re a beautiful dog team, they’re very well prepared for the race and the conditions we’re going into. It’s going to be a tough one,” Burmeister said.
“We prepared a really tough dog team, we had a lot of snow, heavy snow, in the interior,” he said. He also said the southern route requires the skills of a veteran dog driver. “What we’re going into is a type of trail that favors experienced mushers, guys that have been out there and know how to run dog teams. Guys that know how to read dogs and take care of them. It’s not a trail for somebody who writes a schedule and tries to stick to the schedule based on what other people do,” Burmeister said. Burmeister said he hopes “to bring the victory back home to Nome, kinda like what Mr. Morgan did last weekend in the Irondog. We plan do it here in a week and a half.”
Another musher who probably does not plan to be anywhere near the top front runners but one with a Nome connection nonetheless is former KNOM volunteer Tara Cicatello. She moved from Buffalo, NY to Nome in 2013 to be a KNOM volunteer and producer, and was exposed to dog mushing with a local musher. She handled for Rolland Trowbridge and trained with him in the 2014/15 season. She finished the 2015 Kuskokwim and then took a winter off.
Tara met and hosted mushers Kristin Bacon and Jeff King in Nome. After her KNOM volunteer time was up and returning home to New York for a bit, Cicatello ended up working for Bacon’s kennel in Big Lake and Denali, qualified for the Iditarod by running several races last year and now finds herself running the Iditarod 2018. She is running Kristin Bacon’s dog team. “I trained these dogs all year myself and, yeah, it’s truly exciting.”
“It’s really special to me to be mushing back to Nome. Iditarod itself is amazing, but the fact that it ends in Nome is a very special thing for me,” Cicatello said.
Also sitting out this year’s race as she was toting around an adorable new baby daughter is Melissa Owens Stewart. This year, she lets husband Jason Stewart have his rookie run up the trail to Nome.
DeeDee Jonrowe, 64, a race veteran and crowd favorite for decades, announced that this 2018 race would be her last. By the time of this writing, news reached the Nugget that Jonrowe scratched at Rainy Pass on Tuesday morning, citing personal health reasons. Jonrowe started in 35 Iditarods and finished 32.
The 2018 Iditarod had its restart in Willow under blue sunny skies.