Canadians join the pack as the Iditarod gets underway
Favoured Americans hope to repeat success from Yukon Quest earlier this month
Iditarod fans may be hoping for another close finish between friends and neighbours Lance Mackey and Ken Anderson, but for most of the 96 mushers and dog teams starting the famous sled race on Sunday in Alaska, just finishing will do nicely, thank you.
After a day of fun and frolic in downtown Anchorage as part of the traditional "official" opening of the 34-year-old, 1,700-kilometre trek that runs from just north of the city all the way to Nome, the mushers will take off for real on Sunday.
They will arrive in Nome about 11 or 12 days later, if weather and luck co-operate.
There are six mushers from Canada in this year's race, ranging from seven-year veteran Hans Gatt of Atlin, B.C., whose best finish was 12th in 2000 in an excellent run of just under 10 days, to rookie William Kleedehn of Carcross, Yukon.
Other mushers include veterans Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Alberta, who is entering the first Canadian Kennel Club-registered team of Siberian huskies, and Gerry Willomitzer of Whitehorse, who was third in the 1,600 kilometre Yukon Quest race last year.
Sebastian Schnuelle, of Whitehorse, is taking part in his fourth race, and Warren Palfrey, of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, who now runs dogs out of Yellowknife and will be taking part in his second Iditarod.
They face a route that includes dense forests, remote tundra and two mountain ranges before the route follows treacherous sea ice up the Bering Sea.
While finishing is what it's all about for most racers, the spotlight falls on Fairbanks residents Mackey and Anderson who just two weeks ago put on a classic battle to the finish in the Yukon Quest.
In that race, Mackey, a throat cancer survivor who won last year's Iditarod, hustled home with his fourth-straight Yukon Quest title, just 15 minutes (almost neck and neck in mushing) ahead of Anderson.
"I feel very excited," Mackey said of Sunday's start. "I'm ready to get on the trails for the free muffins and hot dogs out there."
Anderson may be close buddies with his neighbour, but he wants badly to win this one.
"The same drama [as in the Yukon]? Sure, that would be OK," he said. "The same finish? Obviously not."
Lurking on the outside is Ed Iten, who has been a top-10 finisher every year since 2003 and was second three races back. He's tired of the "best runner-up" label.
"I'm hungry," he said. "I'm not out here to tour anymore."
Iditarod commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.
- Hans Gatt lives in Atlin, B.C., not in Whitehorse as originally reported. A native of Austria, Gatt moved to Canada in 1990.Mar 03, 2008 10:10 AM ET
With files from the Associated Press