Iditarod Fans Cheer on Mushers at Yentna Station
First checkpoint draws an enthusiastic crowd
YENTNA STATION - Sled dog racing is usually a solitary sport – just a musher, the dogs and the Alaskan wilderness – until it comes to the Iditarod.
"We've got dog team almost on top of us!" shouted one of the race checkers at Yentna Station. The dog teams moved through one of five chutes while the crowd cheered them on.
"The dogs are still in that pumped up, really ready to run mode. So there's a lot of excitement that follows it up to here," said Denise Mackey, who's spent nearly 30 years watching the race out on the trail.
At 32 miles from Willow, Yentna Station is the first checkpoint and was lined with snowmachiners and eager Iditarod fans.
"We've had 27 airplanes on the ground here at once, two helicopters and 500 people," said Joseph Gabryszak, whose parents own Yentna Station.
"It's 1,049 miles to Nome," explained Jenn Martin to her six-year old daughter Kaya. "No way," replied Kaya, stunned that these dog teams still have more than a thousand miles left to go.
As the mushers moved on, so did the snowmachiners, spreading out for a more secluded look.
"To be able to be away from the crowds and see things the way the mushers are seeing them all the way to Nome," said Craig Saunders.
Saunders owns Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours and usually guides clients on Iditarod trips. This year he watched the race with his family.
"What's your name?!" he shouted to a passing musher.
"Dallas Seavey!" replied the balaclava-clad competitor.
"Good Luck Dallas!"
For Saunders, this is the only way to watch the Last Great Race. "It's a fascinating thing to be able to see these guys go up there and to see the power of the dogs that take them there, it's just really exciting."
The race wore on into the night but the watch parties along the river were just beginning.
"It's a little chilly, we've got a nice big bonfire going, some lights. We're trying to set the mood so they know they have people cheering for them. It's a pretty lonely race, so we like to give them a little extra oomph to go," said spectator Naomi Ducharme.
Ducharme was one of about two dozen people staked out at the Snow Wall – a castle-like creation made from blocks of snow and lined with Christmas lights.
She and her friends are playing Fantasy Iditarod, kind of like Fantasy Football, and had to figure out who each musher was as they went by.
"What's your name? What's your number?" Ducharme shouted.
"Go Anna!" the crowd shouted, while one of Ducharme's friends added quietly, "I've got your sister on my team, sorry!"
Bonfires lined the river and the party showed no sign of slowing down.
"It's awesome. It's a super unique, Alaskan experience out on the river. To be in the middle of nowhere and watch them run by," said Ducharme.
The mushers are sure to run into more spirited spectators along the way, but until then, it's just their team of dogs taking them into the wilds of Alaska.
We want to give a special thanks to Craig Saunders and Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours for taking KTVA’s Heather Hintze out on the trail this year. For more information on his snowmachine guided trips, visit youralaskavacation.com.