ANCHORAGE - The reaction is always the same when Army Capt. Darrick Gutting asks his war-wounded veterans if they would like to ride in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as part of a spiritual retreat to Alaska.
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"Oh yeah, absolutely, sir," they inevitably tell Gutting, a chaplain at the Pentagon-run Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who orchestrated a new addition to the race's annual Idita-Rider auction.
Thanks to Gutting, six amputees in the Army, Marines and Air Force who are recuperating at the Washington, D.C., hospital will be selected to ride with mushers in the March event in Anchorage. A long list of would-be Idita-Riders who were injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is still being whittled down.
"It's really about bringing two things together - my soldiers and my passion for Alaska," said Gutting, cousin of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. No stranger to the sport, he's put in hundreds of miles running dogs for Alaska relatives, including his uncle, Dan Seavey, one of the Iditarod's original mushers.
"It's the ultimate white carpet ride, so fun, so smooth and exciting and exhilarating," he said. "I want to have my guys get a little taste of that kind of energy and exhilaration that those dogs emit."
To that end, organizers of the 1,100-mile race to Nome are donating six slots in the auction, which allows winning bidders to ride 11 miles with their favorite Iditarod mushers.
"It's exciting and we're just pleased to be able to honor and recognize these folks," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
Each year people bid thousands of dollars online for the short trek over snow-covered streets and spruce-lined trails in Alaska's largest city.
Past Idita-Riders include soap opera queen Susan Lucci, comedian-personality Joan Rivers and actor-TV host Gary Collins. But there are less famous folks who have participated annually since the auction was launched in 1995 to help raise funds for the Iditarod.
"If you've every dreamed of being a part of the world's premier sled dog race and wanted to experience the thrill of riding with the musher of your choice and with 16 of the most finely tuned canine athletes, this is your once-in-a lifetime opportunity, unless you do it every year," Hooley said.
A record 111 mushers are signed up for the 36th running to the race begun in 1973 to commemorate a 1925 run by sled dogs to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome. This year's ceremonial start is scheduled for March 1, followed the next day by the actual competitive race launched in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
The 14th annual Idita-Rider auction is set to end Friday.
Hundreds of bidders from Alaska and beyond are expected to participate in what often becomes a last-minute online frenzy.
Opening bids must be at least $500. Bidders, who are assigned code names to protect their identities, can make multiple offers. Subsequent bids must be $100 higher to trump earlier offers.
Closing early on a sled takes a minimum of $7,500. As it does every year, Cabela's, a major mail order supplier, paid that amount to lock a bid on for four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. The Nebraska-based company is King's major sponsor and donates the sled ride each year to a Make-A-Wish-Foundation child.
Also commanding the instant purchases this year are four-time winner Martin Buser, who holds the record for the fastest Iditarod, top Iditarod contenders John Baker and DeeDee Jonrowe, and Aliy Zirkle, a former winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Bids are usually far smaller. Among them is defending champion Lance Mackey, who last March became the only musher to win both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year. As of Friday, the Fairbanks musher had drawn just $1,000.
"That's a huge surprise to me," Hooley said. "But I would suspect the needle is going to move on that number at some point in the near future."