Big crowds are expected to converge on Alaska’s largest city Saturday as hundreds of dogs and their humans kickoff the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race with a short ceremonial run along snow-heaped streets.
The fan-friendly event in Anchorage brings spectators up close to the 52 musher-dog teams gearing up for the 47th running of the famed 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) race. Mushers are generally more relaxed here than they will be for the real thing.
The serious, competitive portion of the wilderness trek starts Sunday in the small community of Willow, north of Anchorage. From there, the teams will cross two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and dangerous sea ice along the Bering Sea Coast. Village checkpoints are staged across the trail before the teams reach the finish line in the old Gold Rush town of Nome on the state’s western coast.
The winner is expected in Nome in about nine days.
Participants include defending champion Joar Ulsom of Norway, three four-time winners and a three-time champion.
The expected top prize is $50,000, the same amount as last year but more than $20,000 below the 2017 prize. The total purse is again $500,000 — about $250,000 below the 2017 purse.
The race comes in the wake of two difficult years for organizers that included a dog-doping scandal, the loss of big-name sponsors and escalating pressure from animal activists over multiple dog deaths.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime race critic, plans to protest at both the ceremonial opening and the race start in Willow. By PETA’s count, more than 150 dogs have died in the race, including one last year. Five dogs connected with the 2017 race also died.
Race officials dispute the total number of deaths, saying no records of dog deaths were kept in the Iditarod’s early years. They have not provided their count of dog deaths to The Associated Press despite numerous requests over the past few years, the latest on Friday.