Iditarod dogs tie Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the race

ANKARIJ, Alaska (AP) – Fans, dogs and boats returned en masse to downtown Ankara on Saturday in the midst of a snowstorm to mark the start of the Iditarod Trail dog sled race

The grand start was canceled last year due to a pandemic. This year, fans who took part in the 50th run of the race were limited in their interaction with the participants, but could still watch from behind the fence as the boats left the starting line two minutes later.

Musher walked slowly through Alaska’s largest city, waving to fans standing in the streets of downtown. Competitions for riders and their dogs begin Sunday in Willow, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Anchorage, and the winner is expected in about nine days in Nome.

The cutters had to show evidence of vaccination to participate in this year’s races, and they will be isolated at checkpoints so as not to bring COVID-19 to rural villages, mostly Alaskan natives, en route nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to Noma.

Some villages have chosen not to be checkpoints due to the ongoing pandemic, leaving boats to bypass cities, while other arrangements have been made. In White Mount, where the garbage collectors have to make an eight-hour transfer before making the last 77-mile (124-kilometer) run to Nome, the community building will not be used to accommodate boats waiting for the final push.

Instead, lumber was delivered and a well-thought-out tent camp was built, including new outbuildings, said race marshal Mark Nordman.

This year’s race features 49 boats, including reigning champion Dallas Civie, who is looking to go down in history as the first boat to win six Iditarod titles. He draws with Rick Swenson for five wins. Win or lose, the 35-year-old has revealed that this is probably his last race for a while as he wants to spend more time with his teenage daughter.

Also in the race are two four-time winners Martin Buser and Jeff King.

King, who last competed in 2019, only this week took the place of Nick Petit, who announced on Facebook that he had contracted COVID-19. Mitch Civie, a three-time winner and Dallas ’father, also returned this year, as did 2018 winner Joar Leifset Ulsam and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser.

Fifteen mushers withdrew before the start of the race, including 2020 winner Thomas Werner, who was not allowed to travel to the US from his native Norway.

Masher Jay Fucher took off after her canine team drove onto a busy Alaska highway in January and collided with a pickup truck, killing one of the dogs and injuring three others.

This year, moose are a concern for boats on the trail. Heavy snow in some parts of Alaska has made moose aggressive towards people in the countryside, including boats.

During training last month at rookie-hive Bridget Watkins, four of her dogs were seriously injured elk who were not going to leave and sometimes stood over the dogs. The incident ended only with a friend shooting a bull elk with a strong rifle.

“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” remains the biggest critics of the race and has caused some financial difficulties for the race, targeting large corporations that have given up sponsorship. The Anchorage Hotel, which has been the headquarters of the race for three decades, will give up its affiliation next year.

Lakefront Anchorage Hotel officials blamed the change in the pandemic’s impact on business, but the move was announced by its owners, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, a day before PETA planned to protest near the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago.

Opposing this, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach told reporters during a pre-race press conference that this year they had found six new sponsors.

“I think it’s a pretty big story for us,” he said.

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