Socially distanced Iditarod race starts from secluded Alaska river site

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Forty-seven mushers and their teams of huskies were due to begin their trek into the Alaska wilderness on Sunday for the 49th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, on a course drastically altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Support workers for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race line up outside the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel, the site of the temporary Anchorage Iditarod headquarters, to be tested for coronavirus (COVID-19), in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., March 4, 2021. . REUTERS/Yereth Rosen

The starting line of the 2021 event has been placed off-limits to the usual crowds of cheering spectators, and none are expected anywhere along the abbreviated route for this year’s running of the world’s most famous sled-dog race.

Access to the start area – a secluded spot at the edge of a frozen river in Willow, Alaska, about 75 miles north of Anchorage – has been confined to competitors and essential race personnel.

Canceled was the usual Saturday ceremonial kickoff to the race in Anchorage, a day of festivities that traditionally have packed Iditarod fans into the downtown district of Alaska’s largest city.

And there will be no finish line in Nome, the Bering Sea town that has long served as the end point for a race course that roughly follows the path of the legendary diphtheria serum run to Nome by dog sled teams in 1925.

Instead, this year’s race will run to an uninhabited checkpoint called Iditarod and an abandoned mining settlement named Flat, then turn around for a second leg sending mushers back to the starting line at the Deshka River in Willow.

The total distance is about 860 miles, roughly 100 miles shorter than the traditional route to Nome.

The coronavirus-altered route is designed to minimize contact with residents of the region. Even where the trail nears villages, the checkpoints are isolated with access restricted. The route skips all the native Athabascan villages along the Yukon River and all the Inupiat villages on the Bering Sea coast.

With the coastal stretch en route to Nome bypassed for this year’s race, the mountains of the Alaska Range will pose the greatest challenge to competitors.

“That’s kind of a critical portion of the race,” Rod Urbach, the Iditarod chairman, said earlier in the week. And this year, he noted, mushers will have to cross the Alaska Range twice, from the south and from the north.

Spectators kept away from the actual trail will still be able to follow the trek on computer and smartphone screens, courtesy of an Iditarod video feed offering live coverage, commentary and features.

Among those planning to watch from afar was Thomas Waerner, last year’s Iditarod champion. Waerner had signed up to race this year, but travel from his home in Norway proved too difficult.

Waerner, in an emailed message, said he found it “very sad” to be missing this year’s Iditarod.

“When something is in your passion and heart it is hard to be placed on the sideline due to factors not in your power,” he said.

The race, with its new out-and-back format, will be much different than normal, he said, and “it is going to be fun to see the different strategies when they are not going along the coast and probably have more good trails, but in addition it can be very cold.”

Waerner encountered travel troubles last year, too. When he crossed the Nome finish line in March, 2020, global travel restrictions were just emerging. Waerner and his dogs wound up stuck in Alaska until June, when arrangements were made for a special flight back to Norway.

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