If you’re planning on watching the Iditarod ceremonial start tomorrow morning, either on Iditarod.com*or on Alaska television, you’ll see only a small part of what takes place as the mushers wind their way through the streets of Anchorage and its suburbs. Just showing 66 mushers line up and depart in two-minute intervals takes up more than a couple hours of television time, and that’s pretty much all viewers get to see.
However, once the cameras turn away, the seemingly well-choreographed conga line through Anchorage does not always go as smoothly as you might think. Mushers must negotiate the streets of a fairly large city with a 60 – 70 foot long team of excitable dogs, and as they cross intersections, they compete with cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and snow machines. Although one might expect a cordoned parade route to be easier to follow than the sometimes snowed over Iditarod trail, things can still go wrong. A musher managing a sharp turn can suddenly find him- or herself face down in the snow, dragged along by an oblivious team of loping dogs. What’s more, mushers often carry passengers during the ceremonial start, the “Idita-riders” who pay to sit in the sled baskets and the tow sled drivers who trail the main sleds to help slow eager dog teams to an easy parade gait. Idita-riders can get dumped like a wheelbarrow full of mulch. Tow sleds can get hooked on traffic light poles or stop signs or swing wide into curbs.
In his book Winterdance, Gary Paulsen describes his disastrous rookie start in the 1983 Iditarod. After his lead dog, Wilson, misses a turn, Paulsen and his dog team tear through a stunned crowd and into a residential Anchorage neighborhood:
We went through people’s yards, ripped down fences, knocked over garbage cans. At one point I found myself going through a carport and across a backyard with fifteen dogs and a fully loaded Iditarod sled. A woman standing over the kitchen sink looked out with wide eyes as we passed through her yard and I snapped a wave at her before clawing the handlebar again to hang on while we tore down her picket fence when Wilson tried to thread through a hole not much bigger than a house cat.
One could chalk up Paulsen’s error as a rookie mistake. Yet even seasoned veterans sometimes take in more of Anchorage than they bargained for. In Race Across Alaska, which details her 1985 Iditarod victory, Libby Riddles describes an early mishap she experiences in Anchorage with her partner, Joe Garnie, tagging along on the tow sled.
Then Dugan and Bugs [Riddles’ lead dogs] started down some sort of narrow trail, following a couple of sets of tracks. By the time I saw this new adventure, it was already too late. Two by two the dogs jumped over an old wringer washing machine iced into the trail. The sled hit it and I flew over the top. I heard Joe shout just as he was knocked off the second sled and then my sled went over. I hung on to the drive bow while the dogs dragged me until I righted the sled and regained the runners and stopped. I set the hook into the snow and waited for Joe to catch up. He’d slammed into a tree and banged his knuckle badly. I shook my head and shrugged. A washing machine in the trail of all things.
I think I may have seen an episode of Jackass very much like this.
So if you’re watching tomorrow, just remember: there may be more happening off camera than on.
Coverage of the ceremonial start begins tomorrow at 9:30am (ASKT), with the first musher leaving the chute at 10am.
*Iditarod.com will be showing the ceremonial start for free. You don’t need to be a member. However, you will have to buy an Iditarod Insider membership if you want to watch the restart in Willow and the finish in Nome.