ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Sixty-eight mushers and their
dogs began the annual 1,100-mile trek to Nome on Saturday as
the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began with a ceremonial run
from downtown Anchorage.
Three-time champion Jeff King of Denali, Alaska, was the first
out of the start chute, in accordance with a schedule set by a
The mushers and their dogs ran in crisp, sunny weather over an
11-mile course to south Anchorage, a route shortened from the
usual 20 miles because of icy conditions outside of the city.
Timed competition will start Sunday, from Willow, a town about
70 miles north of Anchorage. Saturday's run was merely
ceremonial, and a chance for spectators to mingle with mushers.
Top competitors like King and fellow three-time champions
Martin Buser and Doug Swingley drew the most attention from
spectators who filled the sidewalks in the central business
Admirers pressed around DeeDee Jonrowe, snapping photographs
and calling out greetings as the race's top woman cooed to her
dogs. Jonrowe has twice been runner-up and is among the mushers
vying for this year's title.
"I just hope she does well this year," said Elaine Wardell, a
Jonrowe fan. "I like her because she treats her dogs so
Some mushers, however, were seeking goals other than winning
the world's most famous dog race and the $62,857 cash prize
that goes with it.
Spreading A Message Of Sobriety
Mike Williams, a Yupik Eskimo from Akiak, Alaska, was using his
Iditarod run to spread the message of sobriety to the native
villages along the trail. It has been a quest for several
years, and he regularly carried sobriety pledge forms to the
Williams, a tribal leader who quit drinking in 1986, has lost
six brothers to alcohol. They died in snowmobile and boat
accidents, from alcohol poisoning and by suicide.
"Life it tough as it is," Williams said as he prepared to
hitch up his dogs. "The Iditarod is a lot better. It's easier
than what I've been through in the last years."
Chuck King of Tempe, Arizona, was mushing to inspire patients
with debilitating diseases. His HIV infection has become
full-blown AIDS, and he will be traveling along the trail with
a full battery of medications.
His message, he said as he prepared for Saturday's start, was
to encourage AIDS patients and others to persevere. He started
mushing after he was diagnosed, relocating to Alaska.
"When I'm out in the Arctic, I forget about my illness. It
truly is like being on a page in National Geographic," he
And he has more sled-dog plans. "After the Iditarod, I hope to
work on getting mushing back into the Olympics," he said.
For other mushers, the Iditarod is a family event.
Dan, Mitch and Danny Seavey -- grandfather, father and son from
Seward, Alaska -- represent the first three-generation
contingent to compete in the same Iditarod race.
The three do not plan to travel together, Dan Seavey said.
"We're all self-sufficient," he said.
Dan ran the first Iditarod in 1973; Mitch is a top-10 finisher
and Danny was one of three 18-year-olds who began the race.
Each has different goals, the grandfather said.
"We want Mitch to win. I'm supposed to get to Nome as fast as
I can. And Danny is on what we call a puppy team," he said.
Brothers Rick and Lance Mackey also started the race. Rick, of
Nenana, Alaska, won in 1983, and their father won in 1978.
And three Redingtons -- father Raymie and sons Ryan and Ray --
also started the race on Saturday. Raymie's father, Joe
Redington, was one of the founders of the Iditarod.