ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Cheering fans lined the streets as mushers took their dog teams for a short sprint in Alaska’s largest city Saturday for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The morning trek along snow-heaped paths in downtown Anchorage gave supporters a chance to mingle with mushers and their furry teams before the competitive portion of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race to Nome begins Sunday to the north in the community of Willow.
But two hours before Saturday’s action got started, a dog on Norwegian musher Lars Monsen’s team got loose and disappeared during preparations for the 11-mile (18-kilometer) run through town. The dog, Hudson, was not immediately found, Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said.
This year’s Iditarod comes amid a plethora of troubles for race organizers, including a former winner’s dog doping scandal, the loss of a major sponsor and increasing pressure from animal rights activists following the deaths of five dogs connected to last year’s race.
But on Saturday, the focus for mushers was on the race ahead.
“It’s all about the dogs now,” said defending champion Mitch Seavey, a three-time winner. “Dogs are what we focus on. I think that’s why everybody showed up down here on the streets today, it’s because we love the dogs.”
Veteran musher Scott Janssen of Anchorage said that for now, he is letting all “the negative stuff go in one ear and out the other,” but will do everything in his power after the race to change the face of the Iditarod.
“I run this race because I love the Iditarod and I love my dogs,” said Janssen, a funeral home director known as the Mushing Mortician. “My dogs have been training all year to do this and we’re going to go out there and we’re going to have a great time.”
Fans also were concentrating on the race itself. Among them were sisters Liz and Jenny Ott of Bradford, England. The pair first got a desire to see the Iditarod in person after going on a sled dog ride with Iditarod veteran Ryan Redington, grandson of late race co-founder Joe Redington Sr., as part of an Alaska cruise land excursion five years ago.
“It’s a bucket list thing,” Liz Ott said.
“Something you have to do before you die,” her sister added.
Also present for the parade of dog teams were members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which brought five headstones with the names of the Iditarod dogs that died in 2017, including two dogs that died after being dropped from the race. Stuffed toy dogs topped with long-stem red roses were placed in front of the gravestones.
PETA, a longtime Iditarod critic, says more than 150 dogs have died in the race over the years, a number disputed by Iditarod officials who have not provided their count despite numerous requests by The Associated Press. PETA also plans to protest at Sunday’s official start of the race and at the finish in Nome.
“These dogs are being treated like machines,” said spokeswoman Tricia Lebkuecher. “And they are literally being run to death.”
Iditarod officials acknowledged the various problems they’ve faced over the past year have been a growing process for organizers.
Perhaps the most challenging issue was the October disclosure that four dogs belonging to four-time winner Dallas Seavey, one of defending champion Mitch Seavey’s sons, tested positive for a banned substance, the opioid painkiller tramadol, after his second-place finish last year behind his father. The race’s leadership faced criticism for not releasing the information sooner.
The Iditarod said it couldn’t prove Dallas Seavey administered the drugs to his dogs and didn’t punish him. Since then, the rules have been changed to hold mushers liable for any positive drug test unless they can show something beyond their control happened.
Seavey has denied administering tramadol to his dogs. He is sitting out this year’s race in protest over the handling of the doping investigation. Instead, he is in Norway to participate in another sled dog race, the Finnmarkslopet, which begins next week. Mitch Seavey said Dallas called him from Norway Friday night to wish him well in the Iditarod.
For this year’s Iditarod, 67 teams are vying for a total purse of $500,000. Organizers say the winner’s share of the prize money will be determined later in the race.