ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The Iditarod across Alaska kicks off this weekend as usual, after warm winter weather nearly prompted officials to move the start hundreds of miles (kilometers) north to Fairbanks for the first time in a decade.
Temperatures have dropped, improving trail conditions and allowing the 42nd running of the world's most famous sled dog race to start as normal in Willow, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Anchorage. The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race spans two mountain ranges, dangerous wilderness and the wind-whipped Bering Sea coast.
The ceremonial start, with a festival-type atmosphere, is on Saturday in downtown Anchorage. Mushers will take a leisurely 11-mile (17-kilometer) jaunt on sled dog trails within the state's largest city, with fans lining streets and urban trails to cheer on their favorites.
On Sunday, the race turns serious as mushers drive their dogs to Willow for the official restart. Sixty-nine racers are expected.
Mitch Seavey, who became the oldest champion last year at 52, said the changing conditions are nothing new, noting it rained on mushers last year. Another year, there was a huge temperature swing, from minus 50 (-46 C) to 50 degrees above zero (10 C).
"That's one of the neat things about the race is that you need to be prepared for anything," Seavey said.
Concerns about the trail were in areas south of the Alaska Range and in the mountains themselves, race marshal Mark Nordman said. But snow and especially colder temperatures after a long January thaw have alleviated worries there and in areas such as the Yentna River.
Crews of up to 15 people have been working on the trail daily for the past month and a half, he said. They cut back brush, smoothed out moguls and created crossings over small streams by felling trees and piling snow on them.
The first musher should take about 10 days to arrive at the finish in Nome on Alaska's western coast. The winner receives $50,000 and a new truck.
But the Iditarod is not without its critics. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say 23 dogs have died in the race since 2004.
"Forty years of suffering and death are proof that the Iditarod will never be safe for dogs --it must be canceled permanently," Daphna Nachminovitch of PETA said in an email to The Associated Press.
Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey's son and the youngest Iditarod champion at 25 in 2012, said an unknown in this year's race was the large number of Scandinavian mushers, including five Norwegians and one Swede.
"Those guys know how to run dogs," Dallas said. "And they may be new to the Iditarod, or have less Iditarod races under the belts, but they're not new to mushing.
"It's about dogmanship, and those guys know that game."
Robert Sorlie, 56, of Norway, has been in the Iditarod four times and won twice, in 2003 and 2005. He's back after a six-year absence.
Also running separate teams are Allen Moore, who last month won his second consecutive Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and his wife, Aily Zirkle, who finished second to both Seaveys in the last two years.
One notable name not starting was Lance Mackey, a four-time champion, who was sitting out this year due to health concerns and because he has young dogs.