As the sun pushed high above the mountains, driving the temperature to twenty-five degrees, a trio of women sang the National Anthem over the loudspeaker, followed by a local student choir with Alaska's state song. At 10 a.m., a race official announced the beginning of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the first team to leave Anchorage took its place at the start banner. The noise and excitement level jammed into high gear.
At 10:34, Claire heard the countdown for bib eighteen and knew Dillon was on his way. She had less than ten minutes. From the back of her sled, she regarded her team, now in harness, being guided to the starting queue by Iditarod Trail Committee volunteers. Handsome, his head up, tail whipping, shared the lead with Ranger. Toolik, a tan and white give-away from Shaktoolik, ran swing next to Treker, a smart little female with a peppy attitude. Trouble, a brown and black mutt with a notched left ear for a fight trophy, teamed with Pepper, whose mild temper Claire hoped would keep the scrapper pacified.
Next came the sunshine boys, Singer and Riley. True to their nature, Singer tipped his head back in a boisterous doggy song while Riley grinned at his Iditarod volunteer. Zach, named after a friend of Matt's who died on Denali, lunged in his harness and danced on his hind legs, eager to get down the trail. Fast, with a die-hard drive, Claire paired the compact husky with Ginny, a quiet, long-legged female who preferred to remain invisible, but was a dependable follower. And in wheel position, the even-tempered sisters, Sugar and Daisy.
A crew of veterinarians had examined the dogs, and the race marshal inspected her sled for required gear, which included a packet of U.S. mail to be delivered in Nome as tribute to the carriers who used to deliver mail by dog teams.
Her Iditarider, Dr. Lee Osgood from Texas, was bundled in the sled, ready for his eleven-mile thrill. Once again, Claire prayed he didn't get more thrill than he paid for. In tow a few feet behind her, Matt drove the tag sled. Janey and Andy were in charge of getting the dog truck with the rest of her team and gear to Campbell Airstrip, where they'd reload everything and drive to Willow for tomorrow's official start. The open waters of glacier-fed Knik River were often impassable for sled dogs, and the Department of Transportation deemed it unsafe for mushers to use the highway bridges, making the restart necessary.
From Willow, she and her dogs would be on their own. By tomorrow evening they'd reach Yentna Station, the next checkpoint, forty-two miles from Willow. Then it was another thirty miles to Skwentna and their first food drop.
One checkpoint at a time, Matt reminded her whenever she got herself worked up over keeping all the details straight – where the worst sections were, what to look for, when to stop. Just take it one checkpoint at a time.
And then she heard, "Next up, wearing bib twenty-two, rookie Claire Stanfield, an attorney from Portland, Oregon!"
Volunteers held her eager team at the start banner. With her sled secured, she took a few quick seconds to walk the length of the gangline and give each dog a pat or hug. Someone thrust a microphone at her. She smiled and waved for the camera. "Hi, Dad!"
Claire trotted back to the sled. Matt gave her a thumbs-up and she returned the gesture.
"Five! Four! Three! Two!"
She nodded at the volunteers to release her team.
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