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Iditarod kicks off with ceremonial event

Sled dogs
The Iditarod kicked off with a ceremonial run through Anchorage.
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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 morning.

Mushing through Alaska

Can't get enough? Relive the action from the 2011 Iditarod.

The fan-fest annually precedes the real start of the race, scheduled for Sunday 50 miles north of Anchorage in Willow.

"I think it's great," said Susan Chan of Little Rock, Ark. She was in Anchorage for a Rotary conference which ended just before Saturday's event.

"Of course, the dogs are the main attraction, but really the mushers, of course, they're in charge of the whole thing. Without them, we wouldn't be having a race," said Chan, who was bundled up in a parka as light snow fell in the city.

For the ceremonial start, streets are closed in downtown Anchorage to allow fans to watch the mushers prepare their dog teams. There is a staggered start with a musher and a person riding in his or her sled - called an IditaRider - who won an auction for the ride.

Dogs lead the musher and rider on a leisurely 11-mile jaunt through the city. Fans not lining the streets downtown also pick out their favorite viewing spots along the city's sled dog trail system.

Like many in attendance, Chan had her picture taken with mushers. She also met four-time champion Lance Mackey just after watching highlights from the 2010 race - won by Mackey - in her hotel room.

The start of the Iditarod coincides with the end of Anchorage's nine-day winter festival, the Fur Rendezvous.

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Helen Rice of nearby Wasilla attended the ceremonial start for the first time ever.

"It's just full of excitement and it's fun to meet so many people from so many different places in the world," she said near the starting chute.

She normally attends the races official start, or restart as it's known, a day later in Willow.

That's when the 66 mushers and their sled dog teams begin the 1,000-mile trek across Alaska. The finish line is in the old gold rush town of Nome, on Alaska's western coast.

"It's very different," Rice said of the Willow event. "The restart's very serious, that's where the race starts. This is just a lot of fun, a lot of excitement, as an old fashioned Fur Rendezvous should be."

The Iditarod field this year includes mushers from Alaska, four other states and four other countries.

The contenders include defending champion John Baker, 49, who won last year's race in record time, ending Mackey's four-year string of consecutive victories.

Baker said he doesn't feel any pressure as the defending champion.

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"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," he said.

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.

For his part, Mackey says he is hoping others believe his time has come and gone for winning Iditarod races.

"You keep hearing all these rumors that I'm done, I've had my time," 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."

Beside Baker and Mackey, there are four other past Iditarod champions competing. Also in the field is Hugh Neff, who less than three weeks won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race by just 26 seconds.

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 a better option because of snow. Organizers said the original trail through the Steps would be used.

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