Despite living just a half hour away for the past several years, I had never been to the Willow restart of the Iditarod. But after attending the ceremonial start the day before to work a tent for my full-time employer I was excited to see the action in a more natural setting. The Hubs and I arrived super early to set up before the crowds arrived and were greeted with single digit temps and freezing fog. Luckily, the fog burned off and the sun came out to create a wonderful Alaskan winter day!
The restart takes place on a frozen lake, so the area is wide open. I took a break from working our tent – which you can see off to the right of the start line in the picture above to enjoy the festivities and get some photos. As you can see it was there was a BIG crowd. It’s basically an Alaskan tailgate party in the middle of winter.
The view from the hill where the lake’s shoreline is, allowed us to see the mushers as they headed down the beginning of the trail lined with supporters. The crowds continued across the massive lake and into the trees beyond. Many also have cabins on the surrounding lakes, which the trail crosses and would go out to cheer on the mushers as they go by in those areas too. This vantage point also gave us a good look at the musher’s lot where the teams were preparing for their turn at the start line.
I headed down to the corner of the mushers’ lot to watch the behind the scenes action and had the perfect view to see the teams up close as they approached the staging lane for the start line. One by one, the teams lined up as the event staff directed them through the process.
Then the next stop was the start line, where the teams would leave every two minutes. This time they no longer had an Iditarider or drag sled like they did at the ceremonial start so the sleds are lighter and it takes all of the handlers to keep the teams from heading straight out onto the trail as they approach the starting line.
I was able to get several great shots of the mushers too. Their smiles show just how much they love this sport and their teams. Some led their teams in and others managed the sled while their handlers directed the dogs, but they were all excited.
Once they were in the shoot it was time to focus on the final preparations, check their dogs and enjoy last moments with family before they begin the 1,049 mile trek to Nome over the next several days.
The dogs were just as excited to head out as they had been the day before. We all swore they knew how to count as they bolted off the line each time the countdown ended for the next team heading out.
Although the crowd on the other side of the starting line was wall-to-wall I was able to squeeze in toward the end to get a few shots of the final mushers as they headed out.
Several stopped to give their dogs a final motivation for the race ahead and thank them for their part on the team.
Many had final hugs and handshakes from family and supporters, while others gave quick interviews or posed for a photo with fans before the final countdown began.
And of course there were several high fives with their handlers as they headed out on this epic journey.
Then it was down to the last musher, who wore a ‘cat in the hat’ hat in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. He paused to honor his team getting down on their level and bowing to them.
Then he was off on the “Last Great Race” with a big thumbs up and snow already gathering around his feet.
It will take the teams approximately 8-9 days to complete the entire route. You can check out each musher’s current standings and location on the Iditarod’s website. I wish them all a safe and successful race!