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Troubles hang over Iditarod as race kicks off this weekend

In this March 7, 2015 file photo, two dogs peek out from look out holes on the truck of musher Justin Savidis of Willow, Alaska, before the ceremonial run of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. 

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Twenty-two mushers had reached the Rainy Pass checkpoint by mid-afternoon Monday after the first day of racing in the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

They were led by a rookie, Jessie Holmes of Nenana, who paused at the checkpoint for just 16 minutes before continuing up the pass with 16 dogs.

Sixty-seven teams departed Sunday on the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race from Willow, Alaska, to Nome on the state’s west coast.

The trail winds over frozen lakes and rivers, through mountain passes and over trails once used for delivery of mail and supplies to mining communities.

The Rainy Pass checkpoint is 142 miles (228 kilometers) from the starting line. From the checkpoint, mushers and their teams begin a 48-mile (77-kilometer) leg to Rohn.

From the checkpoint, teams climb from an elevation of about 1,800 feet (550 meters) to the highest point of the pass at an elevation of 3,160 feet (965 meter) over gradual, mostly barren terrain. A sharp descent follows along a creek and a river.

By mid-afternoon, three other Alaska mushers had departed the Rainy Pass checkpoint, including Richie Diehl of Aniak, Wade Marrs of Willow and Ryan Redington of Wasilla.

Reigning champion Mitch Seavey was among mushers resting at the checkpoint.

The winner is expected to reach Nome about nine days after the start.

Zoya DeNure of Delta Junction, Alaska, became the first musher to scratch. She reached the Skwentna checkpoint 72 miles (116 kilometers) from the starting line shortly before 8 a.m. Monday but pulled out of the race, citing personal health reasons. DeNure has entered the Iditarod eight times and finished twice.

Competitors took to the snowy trail as the Iditarod kicked off Sunday in Willow, Alaska following a trying year for the annual event.

Musher Cody Strathe of Fairbanks and his 16-dog team were the first to take off across frozen Willow Lake, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Anchorage.

Before taking off on the trail, Strathe said he was excited to be the first to leave. He said he had a harmonica in his pocket and he plans to teach himself to play during the race.

“I have plenty of time while I’m out there,” he said, adding he will play “bad harmonica music” to his dogs along the way.

Sixty-seven teams are signed up for the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) trek. The winner is expected to reach the finish in the old Gold Rush town of Nome in about nine days.

The race is taking place after organizers spent much of the year dealing with multiple problems, including a champion’s dog doping scandal, the loss of a major sponsor and escalating pressure from animal rights activists.

Iditarod officials acknowledge they’ve weathered a challenging year. But they say it’s been a learning experience, not a sign the race faces an uncertain future as some critics believe.

On Sunday, it was all about the race ahead.

Anja Radano of Talkeetna, Alaska, said she was excited to run her first Iditarod with her team, including two dogs named after carnival rides, Skeeball and Tilt-A-Whirl.

“My mind, personally, is just that I get out on the trail and hopefully, I don’t forget anything important,” said Radano, who is originally from Germany.

The race had its traditional ceremonial start Saturday with a short sprint through downtown Anchorage that gave fans a chance to get up close to the teams.

A dog on the team of Norwegian musher Lars Monsen got loose and bolted from his trailer kennel before Saturday’s event. The dog, Hudson, was later found and was securely leashed in Willow as Monsen geared up, with just one thing on his mind heading into his third Iditarod.

“It’s just going out on the trail and having fun and keeping the dogs happy and making the right moves along the way,” he said. “Not getting too eager in the beginning.”