Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins as mushers take off in Alaska

A New Zealand man is the first musher en route to the town of Nome, Alaska, as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race gets underway Sunday.

Competitors in the famous race cross the starting line 80 kilometres north of Anchorage

Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof, Alaska, leaves the start line during the ceremonial beginning of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. (Bob Hallinen/The Anchorage Daily News/Associated Press)

A New Zealand man was the first musher en route to the town of Nome, Alaska, when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began Sunday.

Curt Perano and 68 other mushers began the world's most famous sled-dog race by crossing frozen Willow Lake about 80 kilometres north of Anchorage.

It was a staggered start, meaning one musher left every two minutes. The order was drawn at a musher's banquet Thursday night in Anchorage.

The finish line is on Front Street in Nome, which runs parallel to the Bering Sea coast. Standing between the mushers and the finish line are about 1,600 kilometres of unforgiving Alaska terrain, including two mountain ranges, untamed wilderness, the mighty Yukon River and the wind-whipped Bering Sea coast.

Among those in the field are Mitch Seavey, last year's champion, and his son, Dallas Seavey, the 2012 winner.

Four Canadians in the field

"The last two winners might create more media interest," Dallas Seavey said before the race started. "But it doesn't mean that we're necessarily the two most competitive racers this year."

There are four Canadians in the field, including Whitehorse's Hans Gatt, Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Alta., Marcelle Fressineaux of Whitehorse and Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon.

Adding to the uncertainty of this year's race is an influx of Scandinavian mushers, including two-time champion Robert Sorlie.

The influx of five Norwegians, or "invasion" as Yvonne Dabakk of Oslo described it, is likely just a coincidence, she said.

Dabakk said she believes all had independent plans to race the Iditarod, "and it was this year."

She is a rookie this year, and she wants the prize given to all first-year mushers to finish the race: a belt buckle.

If she gets it, the buckle goes to her husband. "Without him, I couldn't be on the trail line at all, so I'm going to get him a buckle," Dabakk said.

Newton Marshall of St. Anne, Jamaica, is another international musher at the race. He's competing in his fourth Iditarod.

Marshall's race strategy is simple: He just wants to finish the race. He plans to take it slow and simple "and get to Nome," he said.

When asked how his team looks, Marshall said: "My team looks ... I'll find out on the trail."

The Sunday event in Willow followed a ceremonial start Saturday in downtown Anchorage. At that fan-friendly event, mushers talked to people and had their pictures taken for hours before taking their sleds on a leisurely 18-kilometre run on urban trails in the city.

The race turned serious Sunday. The Iditarod had a late-afternoon start so fans from Fairbanks could get there.

Too warm for dogs

It was a beautiful day for fans at the restart of the race, with temperatures dipping below freezing.

"Too warm for dogs," said Eric Noble of Eagle River, Alaska.

Noble and his wife and son have attended for years because they help musher Jessie Royer.

Another fan at the race, volunteering to work security, was Adam Redmon of Waynesville. N.C.

Redmon said he and his wife put bucket-list vacation ideas into a teapot.

"We just reached in there New Year's and picked it out," he said. "It was just meant to be."

The colder temperatures didn't bother Redmon, who will graduate with a business administration degree in May. He started college after serving in the military.

"It's been colder back home," he said. "Golly, I'm not even wearing gloves."