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Iditarod won, but Alaska town honors every finisher

Iditarod won, but Alaska town honors every finisher

March 15th, 2013 in News

NOME, Alaska (AP) - The winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has come under the burled arch in this western Alaska outpost, but that's just the beginning for this community, where every musher to finish the race gets a hero's welcome.

The town's sirens blare when each of the more than four dozen competitors is about a mile out, and the mushers are all treated like royalty as they cross the finish line under the famed arch on Front Street, and have their pictures taken with fans.

"People come running out of their homes, pouring out of the bars on Front Street, to all run down to the chute and welcome the next team in," said Laura Samuelson, director of the city's Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum and former official finish-line checker. "It's very exciting."

Every year for four decades, residents of this old gold-rush town have greeted mushers at all hours of the day and night as they completed the world's most famous sled dog race, which spans two mountain ranges, dangerous Alaska wilderness and the wind-whipped Bering Sea coast.

Mitch Seavey won this year's Iditarod on Tuesday evening, edging second place musher Aliy Zirkle by 24 minutes. But the reveling will continue as the rest of the remaining mushers - 11 had scratched and one had withdrawn as of Thursday morning - trickle into town over the next few days.

"The tradition of welcoming mushers into Nome is very important because you figure anyone who comes this far on a team of dogs, from Anchorage to Nome, and takes 10 days to get here, or three weeks to get here, they all deserve the same recognition and the same appreciation for making it this far," Samuelson said.

This year's race began with 66 teams March 2 at a ceremonial start in Anchorage. The official 1,000-mile race for mushers and their teams of dogs started the next day about 50 miles north of Anchorage.

The grueling trek ends in Nome, where Old West lawman Wyatt Earp once owned a bar.

The mushers, heck, even cruise ship passengers and other visitors, are always "heartily welcomed in Nome because this really is the edge of the earth, and it really is the end of the trail," Samuelson said.

Nome and dog mushing are part history lesson, part love affair.

The city - now with a population of about 3,500 - exists because of gold, and dog teams helped gold miners get to their stakes in the decades before snowmobiles. It also was the foremost mode of transportation for generations of Alaska Natives.

"The Iditarod, more so than anything I know, for me, is among the quintessential Alaska," said Richard Beneville, a tour company operator, school office and chamber of commerce officer.

"It's dogs, which are a tradition in the Native culture as well as the non-Native culture, it's the transportation, the communication, the social aspects of it," Beneville said. "And to see these men and women coming across the finish line - a 1,049 miles - to me is stunning."

The welcome process begins on a gravel road four miles outside town, where a spotter for the local radio station, KNOM, waits for each musher to hit Farley's Camp, a collection of cabins along the Bering Sea coast. The spotter alerts the station that a musher in on the way, then will broadcast live as they shadow the musher past the Nome River and into town.

When the musher is about a mile and a half out, the town's siren blows, letting everyone know the musher is on his way.

Once the musher comes off the sea ice onto Front Street a few blocks from the finish, a police car with its lights flashing takes over as the official escort. The weary musher then guides the dog team down the city's business district, sometimes slapping high-fives with fans lining the street.

The celebratory atmosphere is like "Mardi Gras with dogs," Beneville said.

Greg Bill is at the finish line this week like he has been for the past 40 years, and said it's an important tradition for the mushers.

"It's really heartwarming because they just traveled a thousand miles," said Bill, the race's development director. "Some of them have family here to greet them. Others don't."

Howard Farley, 80, is one of the founders of the Iditarod, first run in 1973. He helped organize the Nome finish, and placed in the second-to-last paying position in the first race - back when the finish line consisted of Kool-Aid sprinkled over the snow.

"We're not going across town. We're not going across the street. We're not going in a circle," Farley said. "We're racing a thousand miles over treacherous Alaska wilderness."

A former town official said at the very first musher's banquet that everyone who finishes the race is a hero.

"And I knew that," Farley said. "I was in the back, and I got a hero's welcome.