And they're off! Iditarod teams set out on trail to Nome

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

WASILLA (AP) -- Sixty-four mushers and more than a thousand dogs headed out under a cloudless blue sky Sunday for the 30th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

With the festivities of the ceremonial start behind them, the mushers brought a focused intensity to the real start, which took place 45 miles north of Anchorage.

Charlie Boulding of Manley, who drew the top starting position, checked and double checked all the gear in his sled bag as he waited for the 1,100-mile race to Nome to begin. Boulding said that, with temperatures in the low teens and rising, he was pleased to be heading out first.

''I always like to get out of here early because of the heat. My dogs aren't used to that,'' said Boulding, a fisherman and trapper who lives on the Tanana River in Interior Alaska. ''If you're leaving way in the back you're leaving in the heat of the day.''

Boulding said he would rest his dogs as the day grew warmer.

While the dogs prefer colder temperatures, race fans enjoyed the sunshine and watched from lawn chairs as the teams headed out at two-minute intervals on a trail that winds through wooded hills of spruce and birch.

More fans were waiting farther down the trail, traveling to the Yentna River on snowmobile and having Alaska-style tailgate parties as the mushers pass by.

The presence of so many snowmobiles on the trail can be a problem. Last year a musher was forced to scratch just 25 miles into the race after a snowmobile collided with his teams, injuring two of his lead dogs.

''There are going to be several hundred people out there on snowmachines,'' Boulding said. ''When it gets dark, then it gets dangerous.''

Defending champion Doug Swingley of Linoln, Mont., agreed that snowmobiles could make the first hundred miles of trail tricky.

''It's a lot of people. A lot of snowmachines. You've got to pay attention,'' Swinley said. ''You've got to put some lead dogs up there who will pay attention.''

Norwegian musher Harald Tunheim was at the starting line despite a badly sprained right ankle that forced him to watch Saturday's ceremonial start on television, while one of his handlers ran his team.

Tunheim injured himself while approaching the podium to accept his bib number at the pre-race banquet Thursday night. Despite a doctor's orders to stay off the foot for at least three days, he was determined to start the race.

''I'll be taking it step by step. I have a good truck in front of me,'' Tunheim said, referring to his 16 dogs.

Tunheim tried not to put too much weight on his right foot as he packed his sled bag and peformed last-minute chores.

A small seat that folds out from the back of his sled will help give him a break from standing and allow him to rest the ankle.

Tunheim said the injury may make it difficult to keep his balance, since going over bumps in the trail can require shifting weight from one foot to another while standing on the back of the sled. In addition, he usually uses his right foot to push the sled up hills, and he uses it to brake.

''If I'm going fast it's because I can't brake,'' he said with a laugh.

The teams will be traveling up frozen rivers before heading into the Alaska Range. They will reach the highest elevation of the trail -- 3,160 feet -- at Rainy Pass, about 200 miles into the race, by late Monday.

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