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Iditarod 2002 Started Saturday March 2


By Alberto Enriquez
Anchorage Daily News

64 teams head out into wilderness, leaving hive of activity behind

Wasilla -- Brilliant blue skies and seasonably warm weather greeted droves of spectators, hundreds of volunteers and 64 sled dog teams Sunday at the restart of the 30th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Wasilla.

"He's on his way to No-o-o-o-me!" 8-year-old Trae McGriff of Wasilla crowed to her brother Mike, 7, as Doug Swingley swept past, making his bid for an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship. As Swingley's team headed north, Trae talked of two beloved dogs at home and her own Iditarod dreams.

"I want to win," she said. "I want to go to Nome. I want to see what it's like." Trae was surely not alone. Alaskans capped a week of canine heroism Sunday, turning out in droves to watch the race that commemorates the saving of Nome from a 1925 diphtheria epidemic by such sled dog stalwarts as Leonhard Seppala's fabled Siberians Togo and Balto.

On Tuesday, a Fairbanks sheltie rescued its master by waking him when the house was on fire. The next day, a team searching for an overdue man arrived at Knight Island in Prince William Sound and were greeted by a Labrador named Buddy. The dog led them to his fallen master, despite having spent 12 days wearing a path from the shore to the site of a wood-cutting accident that had killed caretaker Bill Hitchcock. Not that Alaskans need many reminders of canine endurance, fidelity and intelligence

Lighter and fleeter than the Baltos of old, the 1,024 jumping, yipping, pawing sled dogs showed the same spirit at Sunday's start. Today's Iditarod dogs average about 40 pounds, about one-third less than the dogs that once delivered people and goods across snow and ice.

"If they look small, it's for the same reason you don't see Shaq at the Boston Marathon," past champion Libby Riddles said Sunday. "These dogs are something," she added, referring to Nikolai Ettyne's purebred Siberian team. "Though often not as fast as Alaskan huskies, they're really strong. And if you think Alaskans are not strong, try taking one out for a walk on a leash sometime."

All 64 Iditarod teams passed the first checkpoint at Knik without mishap. No one dropped a dog. From there, the teams headed toward a wilderness of spruce swamps and a long run up the Susitna River to Skwentna, the checkpoint 100 miles from Sunday's restart.

Reporter Alberto Enriquez can be reached at aenriquez@adn.com or at 907-257-4328.

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