Excitement was high in our household. We sleepily rolled out of bed, yet it wasn’t long before the air was energized. This was the day that we had been waiting for. Today, we were going to watch the Iditarod restart in Willow. For a full year we had looked forward to this day. This is a day that many people dream of. People from all over the world have dreams to watch the Iditarod. And today was our day, to watch the Iditarod restart…to be a very tiny part of history within the Last Great Race.
We had been telling the kids since last year that this year would be the year that we’d go to Willow. This is the restart of the Iditarod race, and it is where we found ourselves watching the Iditarod. (The ceremonial start is in Anchorage which we attended in 2018.) Watching this iconic race has been something we’ve looked forward to the whole long winter. We had been warned that parking could be pretty tight, and we were anxious to ensure that we got a spot. So around 7:30 we sleepily rolled out of bed as we began to eagerly prepare for our day trip. Kids were bundled up in layers. Lunches were made and packed into the car. And then we loaded up.
Driving to Willow
The drive to Willow is beautiful. As you head northwest, you leave the cities of Alaska behind and the views and forest become more beautiful. Snow becomes deeper, greatly enhancing the mood for a sled dog race! Around 9am we arrived in Willow. We were about to watch the Iditarod! Now, mind you, the race didn’t start until 2pm. We were there about 5 hours early. Lo and behold, parking wasn’t quite as tight as we expected! While I do recommend getting there early, we may have been a bit overkill.
Heading Out to Watch the Iditarod
We watched a movie in the car, read some books, and got out and played on the giant snow piles surrounding the parking lot (which was just a field that had been plowed). We also found the clean porta potties. Using a porta potty during Alaska winter is a sure way to make sure you are awake! We headed toward the Willow Community Center, chattering about being able to watch the race, throwing snowballs, pointing out the bush planes landing to watch the Iditarod, and enjoying family time. We may have also collected a stick or two compliments of the 3 and 4 year olds who have a fascination with such things.
The Iditarod Preparation Setting
Outside of the community center, dozens of dog musher trucks were parked. The air was abuzz with contagious excitement. You could hear dogs barking excitedly and the calm voices of mushers talking to their dogs as they prepared to embark on this epic journey. The kids slid down some snow hills, found some clean snow to snack on, and watched with interest. The dogs were definitely a highlight – you can’t help but smile to see how excited they are to get going.
After watching the race preparation for a while, we headed into the Willow Community Center. There were many vendors there selling food, art, and Iditarod paraphernalia. My personal favorite was the artist selling his dog mushing prints. The community center is not particularly big, so it was a little overwhelming to stay there with as many people show up to watch the Iditarod. It’s a great place to warm up, however, which is a very big blessing when you have little ones in tow.
The Iditarod Setting
After exiting the community center, we headed toward Willow Lake. Here the mood became even more enthusiastic. Children, including ours, climbed through the deep snow toward the little playground. Shouts of laughter were heard as kids slid down the slides into snow drifts and waded through the snow. The Iditarod trail song blared over loud speakers as people headed toward the starting line.
The race begins above the lake, with a chute dumping the racers into a sea of excited spectators waiting on the frozen Willow Lake to watch the Iditarod. We found the snow a bit difficult to walk across the lake, but we made it almost to the other side of the lake to find a slightly quieter spot to watch. Around us people laughed as they barbecued their lunch and others snow-machined around the frozen lake. On the distant side of the lake, a small plane landed, a treat to watch it glide down on to the lake. Our kids settled against the starting line, excitedly chatting about the Iditarod and debating on the proper pronunciation of snowmachine.
The Race Begins
Shortly before 2pm, we all stood for the national anthem. The announcers then began talking about the race. The kids began asking if the dogs were ever going to come. And then the countdown begins. With a shout from the spectators, the first dog team is released down the chute. They come gliding down the hill to the cheers of those who watch the Iditarod. From there the pace picks up. Every 2 minutes, another dog team is released. One after another, flying down the hill, across the lake, into the forest beyond the lake. Disappearing down the Iditarod trail. Many of the dog mushers would lean over to the crowds, giving high fives to as many people as they could reach.
About halfway through the start, we decided to head back up toward the community center. We trudged across the lake. At the top of the hill, we watched more behind the scenes. Here the air was electric. Dogs rearing to go, trying to pull themselves to the starting line while dog handlers held them back till it was their turn. We watched from here for the rest of the race before heading back home.
The Iditarod: A Dream for Many, a Reality for Many Alaskans
For many, the ability to watch the Iditarod is a dream. For many Alaskans, it becomes a reality. It’s a time for us to cheer on the state sport, dog mushing, and enjoy another Alaskan tradition. This was our first year watching the Iditarod restart, but it won’t be the last. If you want to watch our video about the Iditarod restart, be sure to head on over to YouTube to check out our video!