ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A champion musher eyes an elite status, non-Alaska like weather continues to play havoc and competitors for the first time will carry cell or satellite phones in cases of emergencies. Those are among the highlights of the 2017 Iditarod as Alaska prepares to play host to the world's most famous sled dog race.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins Saturday during a fan-friendly ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. A lack of snow has forced the competitive start of the race to Fairbanks on Monday.
Here are some things to know about this year's race:
THE ELUSIVE FIFTH TITLE
Dallas Seavey has won four out of the last five Iditarod races, joining an exclusive list of mushers who have spent the last quarter century looking for their fifth title.
Only one musher, Rick Swenson, has won five Iditarod titles. His last was in 1991.
Mushing seems to be a sport of streaks, and other mushers have been able to cobble together four wins over a relatively short period including Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, Doug Swingley, Jeff King and the late Susan Butcher. But the fifth has remained elusive.
Seavey, who turns 30 years old on Saturday, said he doesn't feel any pressure to get his fifth championship and doesn't care if he has five or 10 wins.
"I'm racing because this is what I love to do," he told The Associated Press.
There are 72 mushers expected to take part in the race, including all top 10 finishers from last year. There are five former champions in the field.
For the second time in the last three years, a lack of snow in the Alaska Range is forcing the official start of the Iditarod to move from the Anchorage area to Fairbanks to avoid the mountain range that includes Denali.
There's plenty of snow in Anchorage for the ceremonial start, but low-snow conditions and open water farther north have made it too risky, especially in the Dalzell Gorge, considered dangerous even in the best weather conditions.
The race start has been moved from Willow, which is just north of Anchorage, about 300 miles further north to Fairbanks, like it was in 2003 and 2015.
In Fairbanks, after a foot of new snow and temperatures hovering near zero, "winter is guaranteed," said Amy Reed Geiger with the local tourism agency.
The winner of the nearly 1,000-mile race is expected in Nome, on Alaska's western coast, about eight days later.
USE OF CELL PHONES
A drunken man on a snowmobile attacked two mushers last year in separate incidents near the race checkpoint in the village of Nulato.
One of King's dogs was killed, and other dogs were injured. Musher Aliy Zirkle was the focus of a second, prolonged attack that has left her still shaken.
As a result of the attacks, the Iditarod board for the first time will allow mushers to carry two-way communication devices, such as cell or satellite phones.
The man convicted in the attacks, Arnold Demoski, is serving his sentence at home with an ankle monitor but will be taken back to jail for three days starting Sunday to make sure he doesn't show up at the race again, Corey Allen-Young, a spokesman for the state corrections department, said in an email.
NO CATS ALLOWED
Much of the Iditarod takes place in remote, isolated parts of the Alaska wilderness, well off the state's limited road system. That's why the start in downtown Anchorage is geared for the fans.
People line Fourth Avenue, which is covered in snow that will be trucked in overnight, cheering and high-fiving mushers as they take off every two minutes. It's a festive atmosphere with pop-up beer tents and street vendors selling reindeer dogs.
Mushers will take a leisurely 11-mile run on city streets and trails. Many will carry an Iditarider, people who won auctions to ride in the musher's sled.
While there will be 2,000 dogs in downtown Anchorage for the event, it's not pet-friendly.
Karl Heidelbach, the ceremonial start coordinator, says if people must bring their own dogs, keep them on a leash.
He has another plea so the sled dogs do not get distracted: "Please don't bring cats."