Friday, March 1, 2019

Where to watch - The Iditarod Restart

Willow Restart, March 2018.
If you've ever experienced the double start of the Iditarod (Ceremonial and ReStart) you know that both offer a completely different vibe. The Ceremonial is a party and relaxed (as much as one can be as you prepare to drive a dog team through the largest city in the state) with celebrations and high fives. The Re-Start has a bit of that as well, but it's all business. This is the last time mushers will have a team of handlers to help get the team ready, the last time they'll have someone else cooking their meals or snacking their dogs, the last time they'll have had the chance to have a good night's sleep (let's face it, they don't sleep the night before). While the crowd is all about "trailgating" and parties along the trail on both days, the mushers are more focused on the race as they leave Willow Lake for 990+ miles of wilderness travel with 14 of their best friends.

When to get there

While teams don't leave the lake until 2pm AKST, a lot of prep has to happen before hand. Most teams are on the lake no later than 10am. To beat the traffic it's recommended to get there as early as possible. The start isn't the only thing going on. The community center (which is right there on the lake) hosts a pancake breakfast and a craft fair. There are also food trucks in the parking lot. The community of Willow takes the opportunity to show off the "mushing capitol of the World", take time to mingle. 

The staging area for the mushers is not accessible to the general public, but you can walk around it. The barriers are just the plastic fencing, and the trucks park along it. You just cannot walk INTO the staging area. Most teams get there early and some mushers are willing to chat with fans at the fencing, but remember that this is race day and they are focused on last minute details. This is where the media gets in their face for that last soundbite, and where they schmooze with sponsors one last time.

Still it is interesting to see the different styles of preparation as the start draws near. Some, like Martin Buser, look like they're trailgating with the rest of us. Others are all business (hello, Mitch Seavey). You can see the dogs, see the "celebrities", etc. Get there by 10am, the longer you wait, the more people will be wandering around the fencing and it's harder to get a good spot to watch.

Where to watch

This gets tricky because in order to get further out away from the crowd you have to have transportation, but then you miss the energy from hearing GO! and the dogs and all of that. So we'll just focus really on where you can watch on the lake. There is orange fencing that lines the trail off the lake, so you can at least know where they will be. At intervals there are "gates" that allow you to cross to the other side of the trail.

Some sections are closed for private groups, these are typically set up right by the start line. If you are lucky enough to tour with someone like Salmon Berry Tours, they have a tent set up with goodies (and a little warmth) as well as a shuttle to and from Willow (which is a huge plus!). There is also a media box close by as well, so you may not be able to get as close to teh starting line as you'd think... BUT! you can get lucky, especially if you slip in (or go behind the line) in the last few minutes before go time.

If you don't mind the walk you can walk the length of the fencing and find a comfortable spot that suits you. You cannot lean over the fencing or put your camera inside the fencing, so keep that in mind. A lot of onlookers will do this, but give the race the respect and the volunteers the love they deserve. If you are really adventurous (and don't mind the long walk) you can cross the lake and head up into the trees. The fencing goes away and you can watch as they cross roadways down the trail.

If you have the ability and don't get caught up watching the action in the staging area, you can travel via snow machine or ski or car and watch as they run through the Mat-Su valley. Deshka Landing is a favorite spot of race goers. You can also look into cabins along the trail that you can snowshoe into. Though, if this is your first time to the restart, I suggest staying on Willow lake and not trying to see it away from the start line. The energy is something one must experience at least once.

How to get there 

The Iditarod offers a shuttle to and from the ReStart. They have shuttles going from Anchorage, Houston (Alaska, not Texas), Wasilla, and Talkeetna. Standard fare for Anchorage (which picks up at the Lakefront) is $25, and $2 for everywhere else. The shuttles are typically elementary school buses, so be prepared for them to be packed and cramped.

There are also tours like Salmon Berry who will shuttle you to and from the restart, and treat you well. There is a little more breathing room, and treats are involved!

You can also drive. If coming from Anchorage plan about two hours of driving time on the way to the start, and at least two and a half closer to three on the way home (traffic is SLOW until you get past Wasilla, and if there's an accident just be prepared to be there a LONG while). There is parking provided across the street from the community center, and they charge $10 for parking now.


If you can stay in one of the closer towns (Wasilla or Big Lake or even Talkeetna) and take the shuttle in, that will help a lot. Anchorage is fantastic but it can be a real hassle traveling to and from the restart.

If you can't swing the drive yourself from Anchorage, try to find a tour that will take you. A lot easier than being on Iditarod's shuttle schedule.

Be prepared to walk, in deep sometimes very slushy snow. The lake often experiences overflow... and you don't know you're going to step in it sometimes... until you do. This is especially the case when you are around the musher's staging area.

If you plan on bringing an atv or snow machine, check out the Willow Trails Committee group on facebook to find out the dos and don'ts of where to go, how to park, what trails to ride on, etc.

Where's your favorite spot to watch? Have any tips to share? Comment below!