OFF TO NOME— Melissa Owens Stewart, formerly of Nome, leaves the start line in Willow on March 6.

2016 Iditarod: Field of 85 teams starts the Last Great Race

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race got underway Sunday with 85 teams leaving from a frozen lake north of Anchorage and heading to Nome in what officials say promises to be one of the most competitive Iditarods ever.

Not every musher was thinking solely of winning the world’s most famous long-distance sled dog race. Some mushers acknowledged being sad to leave their wives and newborn babies behind, wishing instead they could stay home. Another top musher admitted to feelings of longing, watching his younger brother finally get his chance to run the race team and dream big. One four-time champion said if he has any feelings of self-pity along the trail all he has to do is think of his son in a Seattle hospital recovering from a terrible automobile accident.

Another musher again was mindful of why she runs the Iditarod, what she calls her “purpose to my mission” of protecting Bristol Bay salmon from large-scale mining, despite a new Iditarod rule intended to muzzle mushers from using the race to promote their personal agendas and prevent them from saying anything to discredit the race or its sponsors.

With fans cheering and lining the chute, the Iditarod mushers and their dog teams — some wearing yellow, pink, green and orange neon booties — took off from Willow about 50 miles north of Anchorage. The weather was warm for the dogs but just about right for many of the fans, who stripped down to T-shirts and even shorts in the nearly 40°F weather as the official part of the race began under brilliant blue skies with Denali in full view.

A day earlier, the ceremonial start was held in downtown Anchorage where snow had to be brought by rail car from Fairbanks to cover the bare pavement. The show went on anyway with the ceremonial start route shortened from 11 to 3 miles. Fans didn’t seem to mind. The smell of reindeer hot dogs, corn dogs and pulled pork sandwiches filled the air just like any other year. The dogs still barked and howled with excitement as they always do. And, the fans again cheered on their favorite mushers at the start of the nearly 1,000-mile race to Nome.

It was easy for Andrea Stokey, 27, of Cape Cod, Mass., to pick her favorite musher. She was there with several family members to cheer on her daughter, rookie Sarah Stokey of Seward, Alaska.

“I am really proud,” Andrea said. “She is ready.”

This year’s Iditarod is one of the most competitive fields ever with four former champions in the race, including defending champion Dallas Seavey, 29, looking for his fourth win in the last five years. The Willow musher’s dog team is essentially the same as last year, but only better, he said. And, he has a new sled made of aluminum and carbon fiber hockey sticks that should be bullet-proof against some rough areas of trail.

When asked if he would win again, Seavey, who has been criticized in the past for being cocky, declined to predict this year’s outcome.

“I am not going to call the shot before I make it,” he said.

The only year Seavey did not win in the last five years was in 2013 when his father Mitch Seavey came in first to notch his second Iditarod victory.  

Dallas Seavey has plenty of competition this year. Nine of the top 10 teams, and 27 out of the top 30 in last year’s race, are back again. Aaron Burmeister is not one of them. The Nome/Nenana musher finished third last year but decided this year it was younger brother Noah’s turn to run the race team. Aaron said his brother has stood on the sidelines too long and the break from racing has provided him with more time to focus on his family and his two young children, Hunter, 5 and Kiana, 3.

This is not the first time Aaron has stepped away from the Iditarod. In 2009, he sold his dogs to Dallas Seavey and took two years off, returning to racing in 2012.  Now, he is stepping off the runners again for probably another two years. Preparing to run the Iditarod is all-consuming from November to March, leaving no time for family, he said.

“When Hunter was born, life’s priorities changed,” he said.

Noah Burmeister, 36, is unmarried. He acknowledged that he has big shoes to fill but believes he is up to the task.

“I have to show big brother how it is done,” Noah said with a grin.

Akiak musher Mike Williams Jr. also was feeling the tug of family as he sat on his sled at the ceremonial start and contemplated this year’s race. His wife gave birth to a baby girl on Valentine’s Day. The couple also has other young children. Williams, 31, said this will be his last Iditarod for a while because he also needs to spend more time with his family.

“I want to be home,” Williams said, looking glum. “It is hard to be away from home, especially with a new baby.”

Williams predicted he would feel better once the race was underway and he got to spend time with old friends and acquaintances along the trail.

“It is not so lonely out there,” Williams said.

The Iditarod Trail this year is hard and fast, and very rough in places. A lot of work was done, including putting in bridges, to improve the trail around the Dalzell Gorge. Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley said something interesting happened in the gorge this year. A section filled up with water and huge blocks of ice. The gorge is notorious but not the only place racers can expect a rough trail. Other sections are bare ground and ice. Hooley said crews have been working hard to improve it.

Reports of a rough trail did not bother Seavey.  Each year brings something different to the trail, whether it is too much snow, too little snow, bare ground or ice, he said. It’s just the way it is.

“That’s what we do. We mush on it,” he said.

Peter Kaiser, 28, of Bethel said it certainly sounded like the trail was pretty rough in sections this year but “at this point there is no turning back.” He vowed to “take it as it comes.”

Kaiser is running in his sixth Iditarod and finished 14th last year.

Monica Zappa, 32, of Kasilof, flew her large flag that says “Clean Water Wild Salmon” and a red slash through the Pebble Mine at the ceremonial start. Zappa said she got permission for the flag despite a new gag rule imposed by Iditarod officials prohibiting the mushers from saying anything to discredit the race or its sponsors. Violators can be disqualified from the race and be forced to give up any winnings.

When asked about the new rule, race officials told the media at a meeting last week that the Iditarod should not be used to promote anyone’s individual agenda. Race Executive Director Stan Hooley said the mushers asked for the rule in order to protect sponsorship of the race.

Zappa, who is a commercial fisherwoman along with partner and former Iditarod racer Tim Osmar, said she appreciates the race sponsors but her message is important (she feeds her 50 dogs about three tons of salmon a year) and as an Iditarod musher and quasi-celebrity in Alaska, she is in a position to broadcast it. Her musher profile on the Iditarod Web site says, “Monica and Tim have been ‘Mushing to Save Bristol Bay’ since 2012 and join their dogs in always standing up for the wild salmon when foreign mining giants threaten them.”

“This is the reason I started running Iditarod,” Zappa said.

What will happen if the Iditarod tells Monica to furl her flag?

“I don’t think they want to look really bad to the public and they would if they did that to me,” she said.

Four-time, back-to-back Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, 45, of Fairbanks, and his brother Jason Mackey, 44, of Wasilla, agreed at the outset of this year’s race that Jason’s race won’t be sacrificed again this year if his more famous brother runs into trouble. Lance suffers from a circulatory problem in his hands stemming from cancer treatments. Last year, when Lance’s hands became so cold that he was having trouble racing and taking care of his team, Jason held back his team to help Lance get to Nome. The brothers finished in 42nd and 43rd place, with Lance arriving in Nome a half-minute after Jason.

Lance said at the time it would be his last Iditarod, but he changed his mind and is back this year.

Lance and Jason, who have separate kennels and train independently, are competitors this year.

“He is one of the greatest and he can’t stop doing what he does,” Jason said, looking over at his brother. “I have the utmost respect for him and he’s a damn good brother.”

Lance is not ready to say his glory days are over. But, he said, his aim this year is to have fun and hope his brother “can keep up.”

“I have nothing to prove to anybody,” Lance said.

Aliy Zirkle expressed similar sentiments. The 46-year-old Two Rivers musher is running in her 16th Iditarod and says she has no goal this year, other than to have fun and not take the race too seriously. She was runner-up to either Dallas or Mitch Seavey in 2012, 2013 and 1014 and finished fifth in 2015. This year she has new leaders, adding that the entire “front end” of her dog team where the “intelligence factor” resides is new. She describes the young dogs in her race team as enthusiastic and silly. Some of her older dogs that ran in her team last year are in husband Allen Moore’s Iditarod team this year.

“I don’t have a mission,” Zirkle said. 

She does know that she won’t be doing any arm wrestling in Nome this year. She finished the Iditarod last year, took a short nap and then participated in an arm wrestling match at Breakers Bar, where she ended up — to her chagrin — breaking the arm of a lawyer from California. She said the woman attended the mushers banquet in Anchorage last week and showed Zirkle her long scar.

Zirkle said she might go to the bar to observe some arm wrestling this year but won’t be entering any contests.

Family was on the mind of four-time champion Martin Buser, 57, of Big Lake, as he prepared to take off in this year’s race. His 27-year-old son Nikolai was badly injured in an automobile accident in Seattle in January and remains hospitalized in a rehabilitation program.

Buser and Dallas Seavey were coughing and suffering from the flu or a very bad cold at the race start in Willow.

Buser said if there are any moments along the trail in which he begins to feel sorry for himself all he has to do is think of Nikolai and the hurt he has gone through in recent months. But he said his son is on the road to recovery and wanted him to run the race, so here he is again. Buser holds the record at 29 for most consecutive Iditarod finishes. He has finished the Iditarod 30 times.

Nome’s Assistant District Attorney Tom Jamgochian, 38, is making his first Iditarod run. He admitted to feeling 80 percent nervous and 20 percent excited to start the race. When he got nine dogs five years ago to mush the hills around Nome, Jamgochian said never thought he would find himself running the Iditarod.  What is Jamgochian’s goal for his first Iditarod?

“To get home via dog power,” he said.  He wants to get home to Nome and his wife and their new baby daughter.

The Nome Nugget

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Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
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