NOME, Alaska (AP) — Nome and its residents are nearly ready for the biggest party of the year on Alaska's western coast.
City crews, volunteers and Iditarod officials have spent the past few days preparing for the first musher to come off the frozen Bering Sea ice and mush the last few blocks of the thousand-mile race down Front Street.
"It's a lot of stuff that happens during the Iditarod, and it means a lot," Mayor Denise Michels said. "We have a lot of volunteerism, and of course, dog mushing is in our blood."
The Iditarod, which started in 1973, commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum from Seward to Nome.
The winner of this year's race is expected to arrive early Wednesday morning.
Defending champion Dallas Seavey was the first to leave the checkpoint at Koyuk, 123 miles from the finish line in Nome, taking off at 4:48 p.m.
Seavey had arrived in Koyuk at 12:34 p.m. Monday, and Aaron Burmeister was three minutes behind him.
Four checkpoints remain for the mushers as they brave the hard-packed trail and chilling North Pacific winds of the Bering Sea coast.
Aliy Zirkle was in third place, Jessie Royer in fourth and two-time champion Mitch Seavey moved into fifth place.
Warm weather and poor trail conditions south of the Alaska Range forced the competitive start to Fairbanks from Willow. Michels said it's been a warm winter in Nome, too, but that changed in time for the race.
"We had a really warm winter until a week ago. In fact, today is a heat wave," she said Monday. "It's like 2 below. We've had a really nice trail, the snow came in."
City crews erected the burled arch over the weekend. On Monday, crews helped install the finish banner over the arch, and set up the sound and light systems. Among the last details will be trucking in snow for a few blocks along Front Street to give mushers a smooth ride once they come in off the ice. Michels said that will happen later Tuesday so it doesn't get mushy before the dog teams start coming in.
Stan Hooley, the Iditarod's top official, said Nome residents embrace the race "in ways that anyone would be envious of."
"They just turn themselves inside out to make the end of this race very special for us," he said.
Volunteers descend on Nome long before the mushers do. Jennifer Markham is part of a large contingent of church members from Lafayette, Louisiana, taking part in an Iditarod Outreach program.
She spent a week in Anchorage helping with the ceremonial start and now is in Nome to attend to varied duties, everything from filling out the musher's progress chart, which is hung on the wall, to working in the dog lot, taking care of the animals when they come in off the trail.
"I'm a dog lover, so it's great," she said. "It's been a great opportunity."
Dann Russell, from Maui, Hawaii, is working his ninth year as a volunteer. He knows of three others from Hawaii who travel to Nome to help check dogs, work the front desk or act as security at the finish line.
"Yeah, I bring warm weather," he joked when asked if he brought the aloha spirit to Nome. He was wearing a baseball cap that read, "Aloha Iditarod."
Michels said the Iditarod can provide a bump of up to $1 million in just city sales tax every March, and retailers need the help to tide them over until tourist season.
Air Force Capt. Joel Cooke, originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and now stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, couldn't wait that long.
He's become an ardent fan of the Iditarod in the three years he's been stationed in Alaska. He's been to the start and managed to make his way to several of the rural communities that serve as checkpoints.
He's being transferred to Colorado and decided to see the finish in person.
"This is my last year here, so I may as well go big or go home," he said.