The second half-century for the world’s most famous sled dog race gets off to a rocky start.
Just 33 mushers will compete in the ceremonial start of Saturday’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the smallest field ever to see their dog teams race nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska’s unforgiving wilderness. This year’s lineup is even smaller than the 34 mushers that lined up for the very first race in 1973.
The small pool of mushers raises concerns about the future of an iconic race that has taken blows from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, inflation and the loss of big-pocketed sponsors just as several major mushing champions are retiring few take their place.
The largest field was 96 mushers in 2008; the average number of mushers who entered the race over the past 50 years was 63.
“It’s a little scary when you look at it that way,” said four-time winner Martin Buser, 64, who retired after completing his 39th race last year. “Hopefully it’s not a state of affairs and… it’s just a temporary hiatus.”
The Iditarod is the most prestigious sled dog race in the world, taking competitors over two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and treacherous Bering Sea ice in frigid temperatures before finishing in the ancient Gold Rush town of Nome. The approximately 10-day event will begin with a “ceremonial start” in Anchorage on Saturday, followed by the race start in Willow, nearly 40 miles north, on Sunday.
And while the world-famous race has the highest winner’s purse of any sled dog competition, the winner is pocketing only about $50,000 before taxes — a payout that’s less attractive amid inflation and the lingering reverberations of the pandemic.
Many mushers supplement their income by offering cruise ship passengers unique Alaskan experiences, but the pandemic has reduced summer visitors spending money for a sled dog ride on a glacier in recent years.
“There are a lot of kennels and a lot of mushers that rely on that to keep going,” said Aaron Burmeister, a Nome resident who is sitting out the race this year to spend more time with family. Burmeister, who works in construction, has racked up eight top 10 finishes over the past ten years.
“Being able to race the Iditarod and the cost of putting together a race team became more than they could bear to support themselves,” he said of mushers.
Inflation has also taken its toll, with several mushers saying they would like to see a higher prize pool to attract younger entrants.
Defending champion Brent Sass, who supplements his income as a wilderness guide, isn’t surprised to see some mushers taking a break to build bank accounts.
Sass, who has 58 dogs, orders 500 bags of high quality dog food per year. Each bag cost $55 a few years ago, but that has jumped to $85 per bag — or about $42,500 in total per year. That’s about how much money Sass made last year with his Iditarod win.
“You have to be totally prepared to run Iditarod and have enough money in the bank to do it,” says Sass, who lives in Eureka, about four hours north of Fairbanks.
With other racing costs, Buser said running the Iditarod could now mean spending $250,000 to win a $40,000 championship.
The race itself has suffered from increased inflation, said Iditarod chief executive Rob Urbach. Delivery costs are up about 30%, he said, and last year it cost nearly $30,000 to ship specially certified straw from the Lower 48 for dogs to sleep on at race checkpoints.
The Iditarod also remains a target of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is after the race’s biggest sponsors. Over the past decade, Alaska Airlines, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo have dropped race sponsorships after being targeted by PETA.
PETA ran full-page newspaper ads in Anchorage and Fairbanks in February featuring a husky—the predominant sled dog breed—prominently with the headline, “We don’t want to go to the Iditarod. We just want the Iditarod to go.”
But Urbach said the race’s financial health is good and payouts should be slightly higher this year. The top 20 finishers receive payouts on a sliding scale, and every other finisher gets $1,049, reflecting the race’s declared mileage, although the actual mileage is less.
Urbach noted that they pay “the healthiest prize money” among competitive sled dog races and called the PETA campaign “quite offensive, I think, to most Alaskans.”
There are also concerns about the future of the race due to climate change.
The warming climate forced organizers to move the starting line 225 miles north of Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015 and 2017 due to a lack of snow in the Alaska Range. Poor winter conditions and urban growth also led to the Iditarod officially moving the start from Wasilla, about 37 miles north to Willow, in 2008, although Wasilla last hosted the start in 2002.
Moving the start of the race north is likely to become more common as global warming continues, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The ice on Alaska’s west coast could also become thinner and more dangerous, he said.
“It doesn’t have to be waves hitting the beach,” Thoman said of the effects of melting ice. “It just has to be at the point where the ice isn’t stable.”
As the challenges pile up, several veteran multi-championship mushers have retired this year after decades of braving the frigid and windy conditions to train for the Iditarod in the dead of winter in Alaska. They find that few are willing to take their place, at least this year.
“I just got back from Cancun to watch the Grateful Dead play on the beaches of Mexico,” said four-time champion Jeff King, who is 67. 66, so I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down.
Five-time champion Dallas Seavey said last year’s race would be his last, at least for a while, that he spent time with his daughter. Other past champions who don’t race include Dallas’ father, three-time champion Mitch Seavey, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Thomas Waerner, who each hold one title.
Waerner said sponsors are reluctant and paying $60,000 to get his team from Norway to Alaska is too expensive.
Lance Mackey, another four-time champion, died of cancer last year. He is the honorary musher for this year’s race, and his children, Atigun and Lozen, will ride in the first sled to leave the ceremonial starting line in Anchorage and during Sunday’s race start.
That leaves two former winners in this year’s field, Sass and Pete Kaiser.
Sass said he is confident the Iditarod will survive this recession.
“If we can just keep the train moving forward, I think it will come back, and hopefully our world can get things under control and things might become a little less expensive,” Sass said. “I think that will help get our numbers back up.”