Iditarod weekend begins with mushers touring Anchorage in ceremonial start

Mar. 2—Bundled-up spectators lined Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, cheering on Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race competitors and their sled dog teams as they mushed through town for the event's cold and windy ceremonial start.

Thirty-eight mushers are competing in the 52nd Iditarod, including 16 rookies and three former Iditarod winners. They include defending champion Ryan Redington of Knik, whose grandfather was instrumental in establishing the first Iditarod; five-time winner Dallas Seavey, who's seeking a record-breaking sixth victory this year; and Bethel's Peter Kaiser, an accomplished distance musher who won the race in 2019.

Led by Knik's Anna Berington, mushers took off in two-minute intervals under sunny skies to follow an 11-mile route winding from downtown to the Chester Creek greenbelt all the way to the Campbell Airstrip.

"It's pretty unreal," said rookie musher Isaac Teaford, who grew up around Salt Lake City, Utah, and mushes out of Talkeetna. "Prerace jitters are completely normal, but this is just next level compared to the races I've done in the past. The energy is palpable with the fans and all the people. It's pretty crazy."

The ceremonial start has the feel of one big community party in Alaska's largest city. Along Cordova Street between 15th and 16th avenues, brothers Jaime and Conrad Hedges posted up with signs of support. Jaime's friend Joseph is a nephew of Kaiser's, so the boys had a rooting interest.

"I'm having a good time," 7-year-old Jaime said.

Conrad, 9, was making plenty of noise, ringing a cowbell as teams whizzed past. The mushers seemed to enjoy the accompaniment.

"More cowbell," Fairbanks musher Deke Naaktgeboren shouted as his sled cruised by.

An Iditarod obsessive, Rachyl Devenport came from Salt Lake City to watch the race. She said she first learned about the Iditarod in third grade from her teacher, who was a musher.

"I've wanted to come here since I was 8 years old," she said. "I came for the first time last year, and now it's a tradition."

Spectators along the route snapped photos of trotting sled dogs, hollered as teams zipped by and extended their hands to passing mushers to dole out high-fives and — in some cases — frosty beverages. At the Trailgate Party along the Chester Creek Trail, revelers could be seen offering shots of "diphtheria serum" to incoming mushers.

One of the race veterans returning this year is Nome/Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister, who stepped back from the Iditarod after the 2022 race — he finished in eighth place that year — to spend more time with his family.

But then Iditarod legend Howard Farley, considered one of the race's founding fathers, died this January at the age of 91. One of his final acts within the mushing community was to coax Burmeister out of retirement.

After sitting out the 2023 race, Burmeister is making his 22nd start with eyes on earning his first-ever Iditarod title.

"He told me, 'Aaron, you've got to go one more time,' " Burmeister said. "I've got the honor of carrying Howard's ashes with me, so I'll be bringing him to Nome."

After Saturday's ceremonial start, sled dog teams will relocate to Willow on Sunday to officially launch their nearly thousand-mile race to Nome.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

['On my bucket list': Why this musher is returning to the Iditarod 23 years after his last finish]

Related stories:

Meet the mushers of the 2024 Iditarod

Top contenders, race start details and more to know heading into the 2024 Iditarod

Getting to Willow for Sunday's 2024 Iditarod restart

Iditarod disqualifies former champion Brent Sass after sexual assault allegations

After back-and-forth over his eligibility, Eddie Burke Jr. withdraws from 2024 Iditarod