COVID-19 testing, face masks and a smaller crowd: An Iditarod like no other gets underway

A musher and sled dogs dash from a snowy race starting line.
Jeremy Traska, a rookie from Two Rivers, leaves the starting line. Forty-six mushers began the 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race from Deshka Landing in Willow on March 7, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

It was an Iditarod start like no other, to kick off a race drastically changed for coronavirus times.

When mushers first arrived at Deshka Landing, near Willow, on Sunday they got swabbed for COVID-19.

“And they didn’t want you to be milling about until you’d gotten the results,” said Two Rivers musher Ryne Olson, who waited in her dog truck until she learned of her negative result.

“Passed another test!” she said. “We’ve got one more in McGrath, and then we should be all clear.”

Olson is among the 46 mushers and hundreds of sled dogs who left the Iditarod starting line at the Deshka Landing boat launch on a sunny and clear afternoon.

A musher and dogs.
Ryne Olson drives her dog team past campfires on the Susitna River. (Bill Roth / ADN)
A musher in a lime green coat leaves the Iditarod starting line with his dog team.
Ryan Redington leaves the Iditarod Sled Dog Race start area at Deshka Landing on Sunday, March 7, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Many mushers, Olson included, described the hours leading up to the start as calmer than normal.

“It’s definitely more relaxed. There’s not nearly as many spectators. The sun is beaming down,” said Olson, she wore a face mask and sat on the back of her sled. “It doesn’t feel like winter.” 

Ramey Smyth, of Willow, waves as he begins his run. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Race officials put tight restrictions on who could be near the starting line on Sunday, as part of their COVID-19 mitigation plan, leading to a much smaller crowd. 

RELATED: The Iditarod starts Sunday and it will look a lot different this year. Here’s what to know.

“There’s only maybe 300 people here versus, say, 6,000 there might be other years,” said Iditarod chief executive Rob Urbach. 

Aaron Peck, of Grand Prairie, Alberta, waits for the race to begin. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Canadian musher Aaron Peck, the first starter of this year’s race, said he felt thankful that there was a 2021 Iditarod — period. 

“I think everyone is expressing gratitude for the fact that there’s even a race,” he said, as he organized his sled bag. “People need this.”

A musher holds empty vials of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Larry Daugherty, a musher and doctor from Eagle River, will carry empty packages of COVID-19 vaccine with him on the trail this year, and pass them off to the mayor of Shageluk at the Iditarod checkpoint. “We’ll do a symbolic relay of the vaccine,” he said. (Marc Lester / ADN)

As for musher Cindy Gallea, from Minnesota, she was happy she made it to the starting line.

Not too long ago, it seemed like she might not.

Gallea had planned to drive her sled-dog team to Alaska, but got turned away at the Canadian border because of COVID-19 restrictions

Then, her community rallied to help pay to fly the team to Anchorage, and they just landed on Wednesday.

“It was quite a touching experience to have all that help,” she said. “It was a little exhausting, I’m a little tired now, but hopefully I’ll settle into a rhythm.” 

Two mushers and their dogs.
Jessie Holmes travels on the Susitna River in front of Cindy Gallea and Rick Casillo during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Aliy Zirkle waves to fans along the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)
An Iditarod musher and sled dogs
Aaron Burmeister and his team leave the starting area. (Marc Lester / ADN)

RELATED: Take a listen to the first episode of this year’s Iditapod podcast: Mission Iditarod, COVID Protocol

Aside from the race start, the rest of the Iditarod will also look very different: For the first time, teams are not headed to Nome. 

This year, they’re traveling on an 850-mile trail out to the ghost town of Flat and back to Deshka Landing. They’ll mostly stay in tents along the way, instead of the usual stops in village schools or community buildings.

A map shows the new race route for the 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. A red line snakes from Anchroage to around Iditarod and back.
A map from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race shows the approximate 2021 route in red. Race officials say the trail will start and end in Willow, near Wasilla. (Courtesy of Iditarod.com.)

Willow musher Wade Marrs said that prompted him to pack a sleeping pad this year — though it didn’t fit very well in his crowded sled bag. 

“It’s kind of inconvenient. It’s right in the way,” he said. “Maybe I’ll end up sending it back.”

An Iditarod musher gives the hang-ten sin.
Wade Marrs, of Willow, waves to fans. (Marc Lester / ADN)

While this year’s Iditarod will bring many new challenges, Marrs said, he’s also ready for the typical, annual hurdles like overcoming sleep deprivation. 

Marrs has a three-month-old son at home, however, so he said he has recent practice running on little sleep.

“I’m just hoping I don’t oversleep during the race, waiting for the baby to cry,” he said, laughing.

Sled dogs
Leaders for Wade Marrs run toward the Susitna River. (Marc Lester / ADN)
A musher and dogs.
Matt Hall drives his dog dog team on the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)
An Iditarod musher and sled dogs.
Michelle Phillips leaves Deshka Landing with her team. (Marc Lester / ADN)
A musher's sled tips over.
Wade Marrs looks up after rolling his sled at a sharp corner on Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Bethel musher Pete Kaiser, the 2019 Iditarod champion, was eating a Subway sandwich near his dog team Sunday afternoon. 

Even though it’s a smaller number of teams competing in the race this year, he said, it’s just as competitive as ever.

“Anybody who wins this race is not going to win it easily,” he said. 

RELATED: Dallas Seavey returns to Iditarod after scandal rocked his mushing career

Kaiser was the second musher to leave the starting line on Sunday, after Peck.

A musher and dogs.
Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser drives his dog team pas spectators on the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)
A musher and dogs pass plastic flamingos.
Mille Porsild and her dog team pass by Camp Flamingo on the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Iditarod volunteers as well as mushers’ family and dog handlers made up most of the crowd at the starting line.

And then, just beyond the official start area, a couple hundred people rode their snowmachines out to cheer on the teams.

Some set up a makeshift bar. Some held signs. A few had megaphones, including Cindy Hite, a local business owner.

“It’s beautiful weather, great friends, I closed my business down a little early, and we came out to have a good ol’ time for a few hours,” she said.

A woman with a microphone yells.
Cindy Hite, center, cheers on mushers with a megaphone, just beyond the starting line. (Marc Lester / ADN)

By Monday afternoon, Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit was leading the pack of 46 teams, as he and his 14 dogs dashed toward Rohn, the checkpoint at race mile 188. 

RELATED: Alaska mushing icon Aliy Zirkle says the 2021 Iditarod will be her last

(The race field shrank from 47 teams to 46 early Sunday after rookie musher Sean Williams dropped out due to a family health concern, race officials announced.)

An Iditarod musher gives someone a high-five.
Dallas Seavey leans over for a high-five. (Marc Lester / ADN)
A musher and sled dogs race by a crowd standing in the snow.
Fans watch musher Jessie Holmes leave the starting area. (Marc Lester / ADN)
An Iditarod musher and sled dogs
Christopher Parker, a rookie from Fairbanks, leaves the starting line. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.