As I stood at the start-line of the Iditarod in Fairbanks it occurred to me that we, the crowd, were all having the same experience. Each of us attended the start-line to see 78 mushers set out to tackle the “Great Last Race”, which was beginning in Fairbanks for only the 2nd time in the race’s 43 year history. Our fingers, toes and nose were all going numb from -3 degree temps, the same orange fence separated us from the teams in “the chute”, and many of the same looking,gloved hands were getting into our shots attempting to capture the moment. Not only were we having the same physical experience, but we recorded it in similar ways. Hundreds of cameras, phones, and TV crews captured the racers from every possible angle and moment. Each image owner would go home or on air to syndicate their message to friends and family. They would all be reporting on the dogs as athletes (a very true statement), the goals of the mushers, the logistics of a changed trail, and snow conditions. So what could I do that would be unique?
I stopped staring through my camera’s viewfinder and focused on the moment I was in. I watched the cheering people, barking dogs, loaded sleds, and lined up cars. My observations of them are unique, much more so than any photo I could capture that day. There were many stories to tell as I looked around; these are my unique observations of the Iditarod start.
Mushers are a diverse group of people, and the Iditarod attracts mushers from across the world and cultures. During the morning, the only time the expectant audience got to meet the musher was as they approached the starting line. All of the mushers had their team brought through the “chute” by a group of handlers. The chute is the equivalent of a sports team dashing through a tunnel behind their mascot. As they passed through, some of the mushers wanted to incite the crowds. One of these goofballs was the “Mortician” (when not running the Iditarod he runs a funeral home) who raised his hands asking for cheers. He was certainly enjoying the moment! Others were stoic and seemed to be thinking of the race ahead as they stared at the lead dogs. However, regardless of personality, if you were lucky enough to make eye contact with the driver and grin, every musher would surly give you a smile a nod back. If they heard your cheers of “Good Luck!”, they would reply with a grateful, “thank-you”. Mushers, it seems to me, are the salt of the land and are just generally good people.
The dogs are excited to run. Very, very excited! Their bays reverberated off the surround areas in gruff, whining, or rapid tone. This year’s Iditarod had 78 mushing teams. A team is composed of 16 dogs, meaning there are 1248 dogs minimum at the race! If all of the teams made it to Nome, the dogs would have accumulated 1,216,800 miles total over the 975 mile course. The Arctic Circle is 10,975 miles in circumference meaning in “dog miles” they would run around the whole Arctic Circle 110 times – such an incredible feat! One of the greatest focuses of the race is the celebration of the dogs as athletes. Although the endurance and mental fortitude of the racers is paramount, the ability for the dogs to get through the race is what determines if a musher makes it to Nome!
Observers get a great opportunity to see the excitement of the dogs as they are brought out by 10 – 12 handlers with leads clipped to the gang-line. There were several times that the dogs were able to topple the teams of handlers with their eager bursts forward, it was in those moment I realized just how POWERFUL a full team of dogs is!! If the dogs felt they had to chance to run they took it, and a 16 dog team is like a wrecking ball that has just been released. It is pretty hard to stop, and gains momentum fast! I can only imagine the thrill of taking off from the starting gate like a drag racer under the strain of a fresh team!
On the Atmosphere
The attendees of the Iditarod do it because they want to be there. They want to see the mushers, hear the excited dogs, and watch the amazing fur hats of people. Wait, “fur hats”, you’re thinking? Yes! The large and ornate fox, raccoon, seal, and wolverine hats and garments are a staple of any mushing event. Bobbing tails and swinging claws are held above the hairline and temples of many warm heads. The designs of these lavish head warmers will make you smile! Fur has a long history in the sport, any musher knows that a wolverine “ruff” is indispensable for keeping the frost from building up around your face during a long run.
Young, old, rookie, veteran, construction worker, nurse, well dressed, sweatpants : the start of the Iditarod is a conglomerations of diverse observers. There are many who made the trek to Fairbanks because they had never been there before. And I have no doubt that some of the attendees had seen nearly every start in 43 years. Everyone was enthusiastic, and after the countdown of “5!…4… 3!!…2…1!” rang out from hundreds of voices for every musher the crowd cheered as they rocketed away. With mushers coming down the shoot at exactly two minutes apart the enthusiasm of the crowd was evident when they were still cheering to the last one!
Throughout the day I did shot some video capturing the excitement of the dogs. This short 90 second montage brings you to the front-line of the Iditarod, and highlights cheering crowds and baying dogs.
The chance to see the start of the Iditarod was truly a lifetime experience! If you ever have the opportunity to see the first hand the out pouring of community support, love the sport, excitement of the dogs, and dedication of the mushers I suggest you jump at the opportunity.