The race took him over nearly 1,609 kilometers (1,000 mi) of barren tundra and dense spruce forests, through dizzying canyons and up snow-capped mountains.
And on Tuesday, Alaska Native Ryan Redington emerged as the winner of the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the most prestigious dog sled tournament in the United States.
However, this year’s win holds special significance for Redington, who led a pack of six dogs to victory in Nome, Alaska. The 40-year-old is the grandson of Joe Redington Sr, nicknamed the “Father of the Iditarod”.
The elder Redington, who died in 1999, was a seasoned dog musher who helped champion sled dog races at a time when the tradition was threatened by the increasing use of snowmobiles.
He and businesswoman Dorothy Page launched the first Iditarod race in 1973.
Tuesday’s winner is expected to take home an estimated $50,000 in prize money, out of a total of $500,000 in prize money for the entire tournament.
The top three finishers in this year’s race were all Alaska Natives. In the final sprint, Dena’ina Athabascan sledder Richie Diehl and 2019 winner Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik, joined Redington at the front of the pack. Redington himself is Inupiat.
He becomes only the sixth Alaska Native to win the race.
However, the competitors encountered some unexpected hurdles as they prepared for their sprint from Anchorage to Nome. Most years the tournament averaged 63 racers, but this year only 33 dog mushers registered, a record low.
Some competitors cited rising inflation as the cause, with dog sledding already an expensive pastime.
And on the trail itself, participants experienced unusually warm temperatures, with some Alaskan communities reporting record heat. “There are almost no places along the route that are below freezing,” Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the National Weather Service, told the Associated Press last week.
Not only did the warm temperatures raise the prospect of sledding through mud and slush, but it also put a strain on the dogs, who could overheat.
But at 12:15 a.m. Alaska time (8:00 GMT), Redington sailed across the finish line, fulfilling a childhood dream. It was his 16th attempt at the race.
“It took a lot of work, a lot of patience,” he said. “And we failed quite a bit, you know? But we kept our heads up and stayed with the dream.