Hundreds of dogs crowd the streets of Downtown Anchorage, barking, howling "we’re happy to see you" greetings, and rubbing their snouts in the fresh snow, trucked in overnight for the annual ceremonial start of the Iditarod. Tails wag wildly, and on this annual celebratory day, it’s clear there’s nowhere else in America a dog lover should be.
Colloquially branded as "The Last Great Race," the Iditarod as we know it today officially started in 1973, when the grandfathers of current Iditarod mushers formalized a 1,000-mile race starting in Seward. Three generations deep, the Iditarod still occurs in Alaska every March, with mushers racing a team of 16 dogs from Anchorage to Nome.
For any "Balto" fan or dog lover, seeing the Iditarod in person is unlike visiting any dog park or witnessing any sporting event — take it from someone who spends most of football season pouting on the couch until my fingers are covered in Buffalo sauce.
The race begins with its ceremonial start in Anchorage, the culmination of a week’s worth of (mostly) family-friendly activities known as Fur Rendezvous ("Fur Rondy," to those in the know). Thousands of Alaskans and imported Iditarod chasers pack the snow-laden streets of Downtown Anchorage — clustered with mushing-themed souvenir stands and food trucks vending giant turkey legs and Alaskan crab cakes — the whole place abuzz on what feels like the most important day of the year.
And for the 68 mushers competing in 2018, it was. Every musher sets up their dog team, sled, and initial stock of supplies (10 days’ worth of supplies including dog and human food have been shipped ahead to checkpoints on the trail), moisturizing the racers' paws and tucking each one into a bootie, then getting their harnesses on so they're ready to run.
Down Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue, just across from a memorial statue of Balto himself, the Iditarod kicks off. Each musher pulls up to the starting line as an announcer broadcasts their name, a brief bio — this year’s competitors included a breast cancer survivor, a “mushing mortician,” identical twin sisters, and plenty of reigning champs well-known from previous races — and counts down as fans of all ages cheer the mushers on their 1,000-plus-mile journey to Nome. Only this isn’t the real start. The so-called ceremonial start is rooted in tradition, festivity, and accessibility, but the actual start, when the racers are on the clock, kicks off the following Sunday or Monday afternoon, depending on the official re-start location.
The Iditarod Trail is supposed to alternate between odd and even years, though thanks to a lack of snow and rising temperatures over the past decade, the changes between a north and south route have not been consistent and the southern route, used in 2018, will be repeated in 2019. The official restart on this path kicks off in Willow, Alaska, a small town (population 1,658) about two hours north of Anchorage and about an hour north of Wasilla. The fanfare of the ceremonial start is all in place — the same vendors come out in full force — locals snowmobile to the frozen Willow Lake, on which the race will kick off, and bus tours as well as independent visitors willing to brave the parking situation find their way to the official Iditarod starting point. For out-of-towners, Salmon Berry Tours offers a bus trip out from Anchorage ($150), which also includes a guide, lunch, hot beverages, and a small tent on-site.
On the snow-covered lake, from which Denali is visible on a clear day, mushers officially start their timed races, with a two-minute gap between each. The times will later be adjusted at the checkpoints, but the excitement is even more palpable as the clock goes off, the dogs stop barking and start running, and mushers wave towards and high-five the thick crowds lining each side of the trail before jutting off into the Alaskan wilderness. The further away from the starting banner, the thinner the crowds and better the views get, and plenty of resourceful spectators use the snow as DIY coolers for bottles of champagne or cans of beer. This is a sporting event, after all.
For many, this is where the Iditarod viewing will end, but for Iditarod super fans who want to see the race through (or just major dog lovers and thrill-seekers), tours out to the remote checkpoints are available. These small planes tend to book up early, so making reservations as early as they’re offered is advisable (it's not too early to call about 2019).
Out of Anchorage, Rust’s Flying Service offers a flightseeing tour to the first checkpoint at Rainy Pass Lodge ($695) and Regal Air offers a stop at the same checkpoint ($695) as well as a day trip to the second checkpoint at Nickolai ($750) and a flight out to the finish line in Nome ($1,600). Alaska Iditarod Tours offers an 11-day extravaganza tour including several more checkpoints, mushing, and more ($5,500).
Because they’re more remote, the checkpoints feel much more intimate, as mushers pull in several minutes, if not hours apart from one another, letting dogs rest on shipped-in hay beds, sourcing water from a hole in a frozen lake and heating it along with stew for themselves and the dogs, and even curling into sleeping bags alongside the dog teams for a quick nap.
Volunteer veterinarians (apparently the list to work this event for free is years long) inspect every dog at the checkpoint. Mushers who choose to drop a dog will leave the fallen teammate with handlers, who will help safely transport the canine athlete back to Anchorage where women at the local correctional facility will help care for the dogs until their owners return from racing.
Those who want to catch the end of the race in Nome can fly from within Alaska or out-of-state to catch the mushers coming into the finish line, typically eight days and several hours from the start of the race and up to 10 days after, though accommodations are limited, and should also be booked well in advance.
Whether you’re in it for the long haul or just want a taste of the mushing lifestyle, pack layers, leave the dog treats at home, and be prepared to become hopelessly obsessed with adopting a retired Iditarod dog.