2003 Iditarod takes off from Anchorage

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Temperatures hovered above freezing and the trucked in snow looked more like pulverized ice, but that didn't keep dogs from pawing the air and yipping their impatience to get started Saturday in the 31st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Despite Alaska's wimpy weather, the ceremonial start of the race introduced cheering fans to 64 mushers taking part in the oddest Iditarod since the 1,100 mile race to Nome began in 1973. An unusually warm winter has turned this year's race into another event altogether, with organizers moving Monday's restart site more than 200 miles north, where there's more snow.

''Different is how I describe this year's race, and that's not all bad,'' three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park said before taking off on Fourth Avenue. ''I haven't had to throw my back shoveling snow and I've still been able to find the training ground I've needed.''

For Saturday's ceremonial start, race organizers found enough snow for an abbreviated version of the noncompetitive musher's parade. The route was shortened from a 20-mile run to Eagle River to an 11-mile sprint through Anchorage streets and trails.

For the first time in Iditarod history, the real race will begin in Fairbanks then continue along a revised course, prompting some to call it the ''I-Did-A-Detour.'' One possible complication: Weather forecasters are predicting freezing rain in Fairbanks Sunday night that would create a slippery start.

The new route is 70 miles longer than the traditional trail and follows terrain that even veteran mushers aren't familiar with.

From Fairbanks, mushers will follow a trail to Nenana, Tanana and other stops before taking a loop along the frozen Yukon River from Grayling to Kaltag. From there, mushers will follow the usual trail to the Norton Sound coast and on to the finish line in Nome.

Mushers said the new route sounds manageable, with 700 miles of river travel. King, however, said he saw potential for problems, including getting lost, leaving Nenana to the mouth of the Kantishna River.

''It's little traveled and there's a maze of swamp that could be confusing,'' King said. ''That's one place I'll be real careful.''

Despite the longer distance, defending champion Martin Buser said he didn't anticipate a more difficult race, given ideal conditions. With so much of the route on flat river trail, it could be fast-going, said Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion from Big Lake.

''But there's also a tremendous potential that it will be harder,'' he said. ''The Yukon can be very hard and windy.''

Another veteran musher, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, was hoping her dogs were up to the challenge after a short training season. Jonrowe's been taking them on 60-mile runs in recent workouts after being sidelined by breast cancer and months of chemotherapy. She said she's feeling better these days.

''I'm as ready as I'm going to be this year,'' she said.

Old-timer Charlie Boulding of Manley, had only one thing on his mind shortly before he set off on Fourth Avenue with his team.

''I need to get my gangline fixed,'' he said. ''I won't even think about the race until I get to Fairbanks. This is a fun day.''

Mushers are vying for a $600,000 purse. The winner will take home $68,571 and a new truck.

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