Countdown to Iditarod: Sights, sounds — and smells — of the Last Great Race
8:30 a.m. Saturday, Downtown Anchorage
Diesel is in the air at 4th Avenue and Cordova Street, where a front-end loader is dumps loads of snow in the middle of the normally busy intersection. The loader beeps as the driver uses the bucket to sculpt the snow into large steps.
In less than two hours, the sleepy intersection will be the center of the sled dog universe.
The ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the only time most people in the state’s largest city will ever catch a glimpse of the annual race to Nome, which begins for real Sunday in the Mat-Su. The downtown spectacle is a sight unique to Anchorage, where thousands of people line the streets and city trails for the 12-mile parade of sled dog teams.
In eight or nine days, one of the dog teams will cross the finish line on the Bering Sea coast after crossing nearly 1,000 miles of wilderness. But Saturday is all about the party. From downtown the race will cut through the heart of Anchorage, with mushers racing past countless tailgate parties set up in neighborhoods across the city.
In the moments before the race, downtown awakens from its weekend slumber and transforms into a raucous carnival with a combination of smells, sounds and sights that can only be found in one place — and at one time — in the world.
One of the best places to see the race is at 4th and Cordova, where several municipal workers work to sculpt the temporary downtown amphitheater, which rises more than six feet above the ground and runs the width of the street. Soon the steps will be covered with people holding phones aloft as teams of Alaskan huskies march past, but for now the only people around are the workers and a TV crew setting up cameras pointed back down 4th Avenue.
A tour group watches curiously.
“That’s a good photo op,” says their guide.
The guide leads the group down an alley in the direction of a walrus mural on the side of David Greene Furs, which is just now catching the first rays of morning sun.
Five snowmachines drive past along the thin ribbon of trail laid down in the middle of 4th Avenue. The snow forms a trail through downtown to Mulcahy Stadium, where mushers will move onto city trails for the duration of the ceremonial run. A policeman directs traffic as bundled-up volunteers in color-coded passes stream past fencing set up up and down the street to separate the trail from the sidewalk.
Journey is blasting from the White Spot Cafe, which is packed with pre-race patrons. Inside there’s a pile of potatoes the size of a football on the griddle alongside eggs and onions.
“Side of reindeer?” the cook asks the waiter as he prepares a plate of French toast.
A bearded man in a motorcycle jacket carries a wooden cross down C Street. As he walks past a crowd gathered around a souvenir stand, he sings.
“Build a building, a holy ghost building…”
He says he can’t talk and starts to play a harmonica as he walks past two volunteers holding shovels.
At the corner of 4th and D Street, a handful of PETA members protesting animal cruelty hold signs near a statue of Alaska hero Balto, a sled dog who helped save Nome from a diphtheria outbreak in 1925. The smell of caramelized onions from a nearby reindeer sausage stand wafts over the scene. A man in a fur hat poses with the protesters. A half-block away, the metal doors go up on the Alaska Fur Gallery, where two dozen pelts have been hung outside. People touch the fur as they walk past.
A representative from race sponsor GCI stands on the sidewalk handing out foam puppy ears, which are being worn by an increasing number of people in the growing crowd. The sound of drums cuts through the noise. The Kingikmiut Singers and Dancers opens ceremonies by playing traditional Alaska Native songs. Between songs, the group leader shouts a seal call to the crowd gathered on 4th Avenue.
“Awoo!” the crowd cries in return.
Everywhere people carry coffees cups and kids; one man pushes three kids through the snow in a stroller built for two. A group of people walk past in costumes: a banana, a giraffe, a bear and a cat. The guy in the banana suit puts on a pair of the GCI dog ears.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz walks through the snow toward the starting chute. A few paces away, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy poses for a for photo with race VIP’s. The governor has faced criticism lately for his budget proposal, but nobody is talking politics at the starting line.
At 4th and F Street the smell of reindeer sausage is replaced by that of dog poop. Dog trucks line the streets as mushers and their handlers start getting lined up — some more calmly than others. Travis Beals signs an autograph in front of the Fourth Avenue Theater, where across the street Matt Failor walks anxiously between his pick-up truck and a trailer with a “Raging Bull” poster on the side.
Suddenly the sound of dogs barking goes from a low din to a deafening.
“Dog team! Clear the road!” a woman yells.
Volunteers scatter as the first team comes trotting down the middle of the street. Fans push toward the fencing outside and smartphones rise in unison. Another team follows the first and race fans push to get a closer look, a better photo. One man uses the distraction to stop by the temporarily lineless donut stand.
The sun is now shining brightly overhead, lighting up thousands of red cheeks. Hundreds of people careen their heads out of a parking garage overlooking the scene as the governor wishes the mushers the best below. The crowd is five deep alongside 4th Avenue, where a fog of breath and onion and sausage and donuts and coffee and dogs and diesel rises above the street; where music, shrieks, barks and pronouncements combine into the sound of excitement distilled.
A countdown begins.
Children go up on shoulders.
Someone drops a coffee cup.
Every camera is lifted high.
The first team of sled dogs pulls into their harnesses and the crowd erupts in cheers. The dogs race down 4th Avenue and turn down Cordova Street, where dozens of people are standing atop the makeshift stairs set up to watch for wipe-outs at the tricky corner. Children peek through their parents’ legs to get a look at the canine athletes and everyone seems to be smiling.
Behind the steps, the municipal workers watch from a pickup truck parked on 4th Avenue. Their only view of the race is the backs of the fans standing atop the snow. In a couple hours they’ll haul the steps away and the race will return to the wilds.
Party’s over. It’s time to race.