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Iditarod: A spectator's guide

By Tracy Sabo, CNN
updated 2:45 PM EST, Tue March 6, 2012
The 2012 Iditarod official start took place in Willow, Alaska, Sunday afternoon under crystal clear blue skies. The 2012 Iditarod official start took place in Willow, Alaska, Sunday afternoon under crystal clear blue skies.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Plan for next year's race finish by booking rooms in Nome well in advance
  • Fans can become "Iditariders" by bidding on sled rides during the ceremonial start
  • Flightseeing in bush planes is another way to see the race in progress

Anchorage, Alaska (CNN) -- It's a competition that brings out some of the toughest, hardiest, most ferociously determined athletes in the world. In fact, most of the competitors in this sport aren't even human.

It's a race boasting more mileage and fur coats than perhaps any other on the planet -- worn by both participants and spectators bundled from head to toe to face a punishing 2012 Alaska winter. Dubbed the "Last Great Race" by organizers, the Iditarod sled dog trail in Alaska is legendary. The race is currently celebrating its 40th running, now under way on the trail between Anchorage and Nome.

This year, Iditarod spectators had to brave near-record snowfall in Anchorage just to get a glimpse of their favorite teams -- howling at top of their lungs in anxious anticipation of their turn at the starting point. The nearly 1,000-mile race covers some of the most extreme terrain on Earth, each team powered by 64 booted paws and a musher's dogged desire to be the first to reach the finish line on the Bering Sea Coast.

The Iditarod has been an annual Alaskan sporting event since 1973, drawing spectators and competitors from across the world. Each year, hundreds of spectators travel to Alaska hoping for some personal interaction with the mushers and their four-legged teammates. There are many opportunities for visitors to meet their favorite mushers along the trail, but it takes some advance planning to get the most out of an Iditarod vacation.

Fans meet Iditarod mushers
Alaska's Iditarod is underway
Dog gone! 40th Iditarod race begins

The 2012 trail covers approximately 945 miles, so spectators must first determine which portion of the race they aim to see. The ceremonial start of the race is, by far, the most popular choice of fans seeking access and convenience. There are a number of events in and around Anchorage leading up to the Iditarod start, such as the Mushers' Banquet, various Iditarod educational seminars featuring mushers and race officials, and even a competing annual festival and parade in Anchorage, the Fur Rondy.

On the first Saturday of March, thousands of Iditarod enthusiasts line Anchorage's historic Fourth Avenue to participate in the celebratory send-off. Race officials personally introduce each team as they depart "the chute," announcers struggling to be heard over a cacophony of howling dog teams. Mushers and their dogs often don festive regalia at the noncompetitive ceremonial start while also toting warmly bundled "Iditariders" in their sleds.

Iditariders are fans who bid on a ceremonial sled ride as part of a program which helps to support the race financially. The chance at a ceremonial 11-mile Iditarod sled ride begins at $500 and can cost as much as $7,500 for the opportunity to experience the event in a sled driven by a popular race champion.

Following a Saturday ceremonial start, mushers quickly regroup their dog teams and reorganize trail necessities for the following day's "official start" of the race in Willow, Alaska, 79 miles north of Anchorage. Spectators who travel to Willow by car or shuttle bus can once again line "the chute" on Sunday afternoon to cheer on mushers as the race clock officially begins.

For most spectators, the next eight to 12 days involve closely monitoring the race online with the assistance of real-time GPS tracking and video coverage from the trail checkpoints -- available on www.Iditarod.com .

Behind the scenes at Iditarod 2011

However, for those seeking a more intensive race experience, travel operators offer various "flightseeing" and snowmobile excursions in order to catch mushers crossing through some of the more than 20 remote checkpoints. The price to travel across the diverse Alaskan landscape by bush plane can be expensive during the Iditarod, but the experience is almost always described as unforgettable.

The Gold Rush-era town of Nome is the end of the trail where the famous Iditarod "burled arch" forms the finish line. Crowds of spectators line narrow, snow-packed Front Street to greet the winner. Last year's Iditarod Champion, John Baker, made it to Nome with a record-setting pace -- 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes. A loud siren sounds day or night throughout Nome announcing the arrival of teams nearing the finish line.

Hotels in Nome, however, are scarce and must be booked months in advance for die-hard fans and visitors hoping to be present when the leaders arrive. For other spectators happy to simply get any glimpse of the remaining teams' arrivals at the finish line, opportunities continue for approximately a week.

While the Iditarod may be known as "The Last Great Race," there's no sign it's coming to an end anytime soon. If you're unable to witness this year's race at points along the trail, 2013 promises to deliver yet another compelling Iditarod -- a truly Alaskan experience.

CNN's Karen Denice contributed to this story.

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