ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — It was all laughs, smiles and barks during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage on Saturday.
The fan-fest annually precedes the real start of the race, scheduled for Sunday 50 miles (80 kilometers) north in Willow.
For the ceremonial start, streets are closed in downtown Anchorage to allow fans to watch the mushers prepare their dog teams. Each musher will take a leisurely 11-mile (18-kilometer) jaunt through the city. Fans not lining the streets downtown will also pick out their favorite viewing spots along the city's sled dog trail system.
Things turn serious on Sunday, when the 66 mushers and their sled dog teams begin the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) trek across Alaska. The winner is expected in the gold rush town of Nome on the west coast in about eight days.
Organizers earlier this year cut out the Happy River Steps, a notoriously steep and dangerous series of switchbacks between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints.
But on Saturday, they said the alternate route, a winter road created by a mineral exploration company, was no longer an option because of snow. Organizers said the original trail through the Steps would be used.
The field this year includes mushers from Alaska, four other states and three other countries.
The contenders include defending champion John Baker, 49, who won last year's race in record time, and Lance Mackey, who won the race four straight years before Baker broke his string last year.
"I'm hoping to do the very best that the dogs can do, and if they do that, then we'll be actually in fine shape," Baker said.
Mackey said he hopes the others believe his time has come and gone for winning the race.
"You keep hearing all these rumors that I'm done," he said. "Great. I hope that's the mental attitude everybody has and they're not paying attention to me 'cause I'll be the guy that creeps up on them."
Also in the race is Hugh Neff, who less than three weeks ago won the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race by just 26 seconds.
Baker was the first Inupiat Eskimo to win the Iditarod and the first Alaska Native to win it since Jerry Riley did in 1976. For this year's race, Baker's 16-dog team will include 11 dogs from his winning run.
Beside Baker and Mackey, there are four other past Iditarod champions racing.