By Katie Morrison EBS Contributor
The Iditarod was not actually on my bucket list, but going to Alaska was. Thanks in part to many long road trips during my childhood, I had been to 49 states, Alaska being the only state standing in between me and my lifelong goal—and winning the race with the rest of my family—to see all 50.
Watching the start of the Iditarod was on my aunt Meg’s bucket list however, so when she called to see if I’d join her and her daughter Erin, I was in. Aunt Meg had talked about the Iditarod for years. As an elementary school teacher in Idaho, she conceived creative lesson plans around the event, like stringing a replicated trail around the school to teach about scale, charging the kids with measuring the progress of their favorite mushers, and writing papers on the checkpoint towns of rural Alaska.
With her passion, she was going to be the perfect guide.
Upon arriving in Anchorage—after taking the obligatory photo to prove to my family that I had won the race—we immersed ourselves in the event.
The ceremonial start of the Iditarod is in Anchorage. Crowds line the streets to cheer on their favorite teams and hope for a chance to meet the unique and dedicated individuals who are about to embark on the journey to Nome.
The teams will forge across nearly 1,000 miles of cold and beautiful Alaskan landscape, including the Yukon River and Bering Sea via the southern route which has not been taken since 2013 due to lack of snow.
As each team waits to start, the dogs bark and howl, jumping into the air to be snapped back by their harnesses, unable to contain their excitement. The enthusiasm was contagious.
After a long, dark winter, you could sense how the ceremonial start to the Iditarod roused the town from its slumber. People dressed up in costume, ran with reindeer, and gleefully wore foam dog ears around town.
The official start of the Iditarod takes place the following day in Willow, Alaska, where spectators and mushers were fortunate to have a blue sky day with views of Denali and Mount Foraker in the distance.
The excitement continued, but the mood was more focused and competitive than the previous day’s festivities.
The mushers are prepared to spend approximately 10 days in the wilds of Alaska, and this is their sendoff. Crowds line the trail for miles, three-deep at the starting line, and dwindling down to a snowmobile tailgate party across the lake.
With waves and high-fives, the mushers thank their fans for their support. The dogs cruise across the trail, half trotting, half loping, basking in the praise of the cheering masses. It is the start of an adventure—one that will challenge man and dog with blizzards, wildlife and sleep deprivation. It is a race that relies on mental strength, strategy and luck that will push their limits for the reward of what I found to be the true draw of Alaska—a deep sense of freedom that is only derived in the wild.