31st Iditarod kicks off in Fairbanks

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Sixty-four dog teams pushed off on the frozen Chena River on Monday, launching the 31st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race along a novel route born out of Alaska's warm winter.

Mushers and their dogs lined up for the 10 a.m. restart in Fairbanks, enjoying snow -- something they didn't have for Saturday's ceremonial start in Anchorage. Amid the din of barking dogs, several thousand fans turned out to witness the Iditarod's first appearance in Fairbanks.

''I don't know what to expect, and that's the neat -- and intimidating thing -- about this year,'' Kasilof musher Jon Little said before setting out on the trail. ''I don't know what's around the next corner.''

An unusually warm season and lack of snow south of the Alaska Range has created the oddest Iditarod since the 1,100 mile race to Nome began in 1973. It's the first time the real race has started so far north and with a revised route that extends the trail by 70 miles and leaves a lot of unknowns, even for veteran mushers.

Even Fairbanks, 260 air miles north of Anchorage, has had warmer temperatures and less snow than usual. There are patches of open water on the east bank of the Chena River, but that's mostly due to overflow from the city power plant several miles to the north.

Still, one spectator crossed over the orange tape sealing off a slushy section and broke through the ice Monday before the start, according to Alaska State Troopers.

''The poor guy was soaked and his teeth were chattering, but he wasn't hurt,'' said Lt. Gary Folger.

Compared with Anchorage, Fairbanks is a winter wonderland.

Musher Aliy Zirkle, who lives in the nearby community of Two Rivers, said her dogs have had plenty of training hours this year. Meanwhile, many of her southbound peers have been forced to train on ice, with four-wheelers or far from home.

''I'm just happy I haven't fallen in the river yet,'' Zirkle laughed. ''I think we're going to have this year experiencing something new.''

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

Defending champion and three-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake was the first to arrive at the Nenana checkpoint, staying less than a minute before heading to Manley about 100 miles away.

Buser arrived at 2:21 p.m., 13 minutes ahead of Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., and 25 minutes ahead of Jim Lanier of Chugiak.

Next to arrive in Nenana were John Baker of Kotzebue, Ed Iten of Kotzebue, Jeff King of Denali Park, Vern Halter of Willow, Cali King of Denali Park, Dexter Kancer of Nenana and Lynda Plettner of Houston.

By late afternoon, most of the teams had reached the Nenana checkpoint and some of the mushers were bedding their teams down for rest.

Little and other mushers are worried about the potential to get lost after leaving Nenana. Tight corners and a maze of swamps at the mouth of the Kantishna River could prove confusing, they said.

Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar, who is running his 16th Iditarod, wasn't sweating it.

''I'm just real happy they figured out a way to get to Nome,'' said Osmar, who is running his 16th Iditarod. ''I figure it'll be pretty easy traveling physically. Mentally it might be tougher because of the monotony of the river. The trick is to keep your attitude up.''

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

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