ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A light snow Saturday morning greeted mushers, more than 800 dogs and fans who converged on downtown Anchorage, Alaska, for the ceremonial start of the 48th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
This year, 57 mushers are competing, the second smallest field in the last two decades. Only last year’s race was smaller, at 52 mushers.
The real race starts Sunday in Willow, Alaska, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
Nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of unforgiving terrain, doused in deep snow this year, await them as they cross two mountain ranges, travel on the frozen Yukon River and navigate the treacherous and wind-whipped Bering Sea coast to the old Gold Rush town of Nome.
The winner is expected there about 10 or 11 days after the start.
“This year we’ve had a lot of snow. I won’t ever say too much snow, but it’s been a challenge to get trail put in,” race director Mark Nordman said. “It’s been a traditional colder winter like we used to have 10 years ago.”
Five former champions are in the race, including four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
Jeff King, another four-time winner, was set to run this year’s race until he underwent emergency surgery Monday for a hernia and perforated intestine. One of his dog handlers will run the team instead.
Pete Kaiser, who last year became the first Yupik contender to win the Iditarod, is back to defend his title. Kaiser, 32, said a majority of the team that pulled him to victory will be back this year, including his lead dogs, Lucy and Morrow.
The 2018 winner and last year’s runner-up by only 12 minutes, Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway, is also in the field.
Besides Ulsom, two others from Norway are racing, along with five mushers from Canada and one each from Denmark and Italy. Last year’s top two female finishers, Jessie Royer in third and Aliy Zirkle in fourth, are also competing.