ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Armen Khatchikian says his occupation is mushing and his hobby is adventure and he is sure to get plenty of both crossing Alaska in the 1,158-mile Iditarod sled dog race.
Khatchikian and 72 other sled dog drivers, known as mushers, left Anchorage Saturday morning and headed into the bitterly cold forbidding wilderness on a trail that leads to Nome in northwest Alaska, just across the Bering Strait from Siberia.
Downtown Anchorage was transformed into the dog capital of the world with streets closed and crowds lining Fourth Avenue to watch the event that is commonly called 'the last great race on earth.'
Dog teams and handlers and media from around the world joined heavily bundled children to fill the street.
'I'm glad to get to the starting line,' said a beaming Norman Vaughan, at 81, the oldest musher in the race.
Teams left at 2-minute intervals beginning at 9 a.m. Anchorage time. The first musher to Nome wins $50,000 and the next 19 will share the rest of the $200,000 prize money, the richest purse in dog sled racing.
Musher Joe Garnie predicted a fast race of only 11 days. His training partner, Libby Riddles, won last year's race in 18 days and became the first women ever to win the event. She is not racing this year.
Anchorage's winter-long snow drought ended last week just in time to cover most of the trail with enough snow for the dogs to zoom over. Lack of snow canceled February's world championship sled dog sprint races.