After yesterday’s ceremonial start in Anchorage for the 39th running of the Iditarod, the real fun begins today in Willow for the official start of the race.
Willow, Alaska is a village of about 2500 people and the place I call home. It is about 70 miles north of Anchorage and on the “road system.” There is not much here to call a town; a post office, two gas stations, a couple doctors offices, plenty of churches and a trading post or two. If you blink your eyes while driving by on your way to Denali National Park, a couple hundred miles to the north, you might miss it.
The size of the village is not small however. It stretches for over 32 miles on the Parks Highway and is known as the mushing capital of the world!
On the first Sunday of March this little hamlet comes alive with dog trucks, mushers, international media, over a thousand howling huskies, and more snow machines than you can shake a stick at.
At 2 pm Alaska time, Iditarod favorite and Willow resident, DeeDee Jonrowe will lead her dogs out of the starting chute followed by 62 mushers ending a couple hours later with another Willow resident, Justin Savidis.
In my little neighborhood lives five dog mushers (me included). Two siberian husky kennels, an Alaskan Husky dog yard that participates in the serum run, and a veteran of 18 Iditarod’s and the owner of Dream a Dream Dog Farm, Vern Halter.
This year, Bob Storey, 65 of New Zealand is entered to run the Iditarod with a team of Halter’s dogs. Storey, a former military man, got his start in mushing after taking his dog to a conformation show or two and became hooked on mushing in his native New Zealand in what is called dry-land or cart racing.
Storey has been in Willow receiving training and mentoring from Halter for the past two years and he and his wife Marilyn are frequently encounters of my dog teams as we train on the miles and miles of trails behind our houses.
Willow is not just about the Iditarod in the mushing world. Each fall a symposium is held at the community center to talk about dog sports and winter activities such as winter survival and GPS orientation. On the second day a panel of speakers speak about mushing history and the roots of this great sport.
The Don Bowers Memorial Race is held each January during the first weekend of the Willow Winter Carnival as well as the Earl Norris sprint races.
If I can digress just for a minute– if you are a Siberian Husky owner you know exactly who Earl and Natalie Norris are. Their family has produced some of the best Siberian Huskies in the world and their Anadyr kennel is located right here in Willow. While Earl has passed on, Natalie still lives at the old homestead. The family name is still firmly intrenched in dog sled racing and producing a great line of Siberians.
Back to racing: The inaugural Willow-Tug 300 race was ran the first week of February and is an iditarod qualifier.
There are several junior dog sled races ran right here either in or around Willow including the Junior Iditarod.
When the this year’s Iditarod mushers are on the trail and heading to Nome and their dog trucks are packed up and moving on from Willow Lake, the mushing will continue here in this little slice of heaven with breath-taking views of Denali around every turn.
I can remember my first day out with my neighbors dog team shortly after my arrival here in Willow. I can remember saying to her that there were more dog yard within spitting distance than there was in the entire state of Colorado.
Willow, Alaska truly is the mushing capital of the world!