WILLOW — Each of the 66 mushers leaving the starting chute at Sunday's official Iditarod race start carried items required by race officials to get them to Nome: an axe, at least 12 but no more than 16 sled dogs, a sleeping bag, a pot to boil water and snowshoes.
But in parkas and sleds, mushers squirreled away talismans, good luck charms and reminders of why a person would choose to run sled dogs nearly a thousand miles through raw and treacherous Alaska wilderness: Snickers bars, ashes of beloved departed dogs, a silver bell to ward off unfriendly spirits, a cross made of ivory.
The mushers and their dog teams began a 975-mile journey to Nome Sunday afternoon at Willow Lake, in the heartland of Southcentral Alaska mushing country. First out was Knik musher Ray Redington Jr., whose grandfather, Joe Redington, is known as the "Father of the Iditarod." Cheered on by picture-snapping crowds that lined the chute, mushers headed southwest from the lake through birch and spruce forests that give way to rolling hills near the Susitna River and on to the first checkpoint in Yentna Station Roadhouse. From there, they would continue north and west across the Susitna Valley and into the Alaska Range.
They face a trail and conditions so unpredictable that, as even the official race guide puts it, a single stretch can "alternate between beautifully easy and unbelievably hideous."
This year, they mush the "Northern Route" trail, which sweeps through a vast and varied array of Alaskan landscape -- from monotonous tundra to the Alaska Range, from the paper-flat Yukon River to the shifting sea ice of Norton Sound.
Before mushers left on Sunday, they were still mulling a last-minute announcement by race officials reversing a controversial decision to scrap the Happy River Steps, a sled-wrecking, bone-breaking section of the trail, for a gentler alternative.
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