ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An absence of snow, a swan song for a two-time champion and Dallas Seavey's bid for a fourth championship in the last five years highlight this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The world's most famous sled dog race starts Saturday in downtown Anchorage with a fan-friendly parade of mushers and their furry teams. The real competition in the nearly 1,000-mile race for Nome starts Sunday in Willow, Alaska, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. The winner is expected in the old Gold Rush town on Alaska's western coast about nine days after the start.
WHERE'S THE SNOW?
People who line the streets and trails of Anchorage to watch Saturday's ceremonial start of the Iditarod might want to wear shoulder pads this year as they jostle for good views along a much more crowded route.
Mushers carry an auction winner in their sleds, and usually take a leisurely 11-mile jaunt through the city.
But this year, a lack of snow forced officials to shorten the route to only three miles. And to help make that happen, the Alaska Railroad had to bring in seven train car loads of snow down from Fairbanks on Thursday.
And then on Friday, it snowed in Anchorage.
National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Clay said the city could expect up to 1 inch of snow on Friday. That was the first measurable snow since Feb. 21, when 1.8 inches fell before quickly melting.
Before the Feb. 21 storm, Anchorage went 37 days without measurable snow.
The Iditarod officially starts Sunday on frozen Willow Lake, and trail conditions largely improve outside town.
"We're going to see some incredible competition," Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley told members of the media gathered this week for the race.
There are seven former champions in the race. Many are multiple winners, and Hooley said these seven represent almost half of all the Iditarod championships in the race's 43 years.
There are 85 mushers signed up for this year's race. The field includes nine out of the top 10 mushers from the 2015 race, and 27 out of the top 30 from last year.
ANOTHER SEAVEY WIN?
Dallas Seavey is looking for his fourth win in the last five years. The only time he hasn't won the race since 2012 was when he was beaten by his father, Mitch Seavey, in 2013.
"I'm not going to say here's the three mushers I'm concerned with because I'm concerned with all of them," Dallas Seavey said this week while on a tour of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where he met members of the Alaska Air Force Reserve.
Asked if he has any new strategy for this year's race, Seavey said: "Absolutely, but I'm not going to tell you."
"Our style is to run the team we have in a way that best pairs them and the trail that we have and what we have to do to try to win the race."
Hooley called Seavey, who turned 29 on Friday, not only a great champion, but a tremendous ambassador for the race and the sport.
"I think for those that have been around the race for a long period of time, they have come to grips with the fact that he's at the top of his game and he's going to be there for some time," Hooley said.
There's a Scandinavian feel to this year's race, with eight Norwegians and one Swede competing.
The contingency is led by Robert Sorlie, a 58-year-old firefighter from Oslo. In 2003, he became the second man born outside of the United States to win the Iditarod. He won the race again two years later.
He said the growing interest in the Iditarod among Norwegians is good. "But we need some from Alaska, too, to come over to Norway."
For Sorlie, those races in Norway appear to be where he'll confine his racing career.
Sorlie cited his age and the high costs associated with getting his team to Alaska in announcing he's "99 percent" certain this will be his last Iditarod.
Associated Press reporter Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.