Mon, Mar 05, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Iditarod pushes off with smiles and protests

Reuters, ANCHORAGE, Alaska

Aliy Zirkle runs her team on Saturday during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in Anchorage, Alaska. Zirkle has finished as high as second in the race.

Photo: AP

With light snow falling, spectators cheering and hundreds of dogs barking, 67 mushers and their teams took off for a ceremonial 17.7km jaunt through Alaska’s biggest city as the 46th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began on Saturday in Anchorage.

Timed competition in the race, which drew controversy last year after a champion musher’s dogs tested positive for opioids, was to start yesterday in Willow, about 129km north of Anchorage, and teams are to head out from there on the nearly 1,609km trek to Nome.

“Those are some race-hardened teams and they’re going to put on an incredible race,” musher Ramey Smyth said of the contenders, including three-time champion Mitch Seavey and his dogs, as he prepared to hitch up his own team.

Mushers were anticipating good trail conditions for the contest, which can last a week to 10 days. Late-winter storms brought plenty of snow, and the Iditarod is able to use its traditional route after several years of alterations forced by warm-weather-related snow shortages.

However, the storied race faces some difficulty this year.

With oil-dependent Alaska experiencing an economic strain, the race has lost some financial backing. The winners’ purse of US$500,000 is down sharply from the nearly US$750,000 paid out last year.

Animal rights advocates, long critical of the race, have also stepped up protests, citing the doping scandal, as well as other mistreatment of dogs. Race organizers blame protesters for the loss of at least one large sponsorship.

Protesters on Saturday set up five mock graves to commemorate Iditarod dogs that died during last year’s race or immediately afterward. They hoisted signs that accused the mushers of cruelty.

“This is not this nice, pretty little race,” said Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt, director of a documentary critical of the Iditarod.

The start of the race drew hundreds of celebrants, who packed the sidewalks. Fans petted mushers’ dogs and musher assistants sported matching team jackets.

Many wore costumes. Musher Dee Dee Jonrowe, 65, a top racer who plans to retire after this year, was decked out in her trademark pink. Her truck is pink, as are the booties and leashes worn by her dogs.

Jeanne Troshynski, a teacher who wore a long pink dress over rubber boots, defended the race.

“I think the majority of the people who run it have great integrity and love their dogs and do the best for their dogs,” she said.

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