Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off
Brent Saas was a few miles away from fulfilling his dream of winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska when 60 mph winds off the Bering Sea dropped visibility to about 10 feet and his dogs starved. and threw him out of his sled. Down in the snow.
“I didn’t hold back on my own,” laughed Sass, who was close to his first Iditarod victory last year but five-time champion Dallas CV was a few miles behind. “We flew off the trail and it took me an hour to gather all my stuff and figure out where I was.”
Sass regrouped and led his team of 11 dogs down the ice of the Bering Sea and down Nome’s main road to the iconic Burled Arch finish line in his seventh attempt, the world’s most famous sled dog race, the Iditarod. won the
Saas is back to defend his title in the race, which began Saturday with a fan-friendly 11-mile (18-kilometer) jaunt through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Thousands of people braved temperatures near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.78 degrees Celsius) and lined up to cheer on the mushers, who carried the “Iditariders,” lucky auction winners, on their sleds for the ceremonial start.
Things get serious on Sunday with the competitive start of the race that will cover nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 km) across Alaska. It begins in Willow, about 70 miles (113 km) north of Anchorage.
Saas was excited to hit the trail Saturday, with 11 of 14 dogs returning from last year’s championship team. “I think the replacements … are strong dogs, so I’m really excited,” he said.
He’s hoping for milder temperatures until the mushers hit the West Coast, where there are more fluctuations and predicting trail conditions is almost meaningless because they change so quickly.
“They’ve gone from snowy trails to snowy trails and back and forth in all weathers,” he said. “I think we’re going to get what we get.”
This is the 51st running of the Iditarod, but the smallest field ever to start its 33 musher races. Mushers and race organizers point to the retirement of some veteran mushers; Others take breaks to recover financially after a pandemic; Inflation, and the loss of deep-pocketed sponsors amid continued pressure from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA took out full-page newspaper ads in two of Alaska’s largest cities, calling out the cruel abuse of the dogs, forcing their mushers to drag and run more than thousands of miles. . The group also staged a protest outside the Mushars’ annual feast on Thursday.
Gordon and Beth Bockart of Fort Wayne, Indiana, made their first trip to Anchorage specifically to check out the Iditarod after getting a taste of the sport by participating in a sled dog tour in Canada. Since then, they have spent a lot of time reading about the Iditarod and the history of the race.
“It’s just been amazing,” he said. Bockart said he has talked to people about the race in Alaska, feeling it will start again.
“Having been here, I can tell you that it’s an interesting thing to come and see, and if everyone had the same experience that I did, they would understand and want to come back,” he said.
Six mushers who account for 18 Iditarod championships are not racing this year. Last year, the sport lost another four-time winner when Lance Mackey died of cancer. Mackey was named an honorary musher for this year’s race.
Only 823 mushers have made it to the finish line in the Iditarod’s first half-century, and only 24 individual mushers in total have won the grueling event. Some of the mushers and their dog teams are in uncharted Alaska, crossing the Alaska and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, climbing the frozen Yukon River, trekking through the monotonous flat tundra and navigating the treacherous Bering Sea ice. have to face harsh conditions.
Along the way, they stop at several Alaska Native communities that serve as checkpoints.
“It is a celebration of spring for villages across the state. It kind of brings communities and people together for an event that celebrates the history of our state and the dogsledding,” said Aaron Burmeister, an Iditarod musher who watched the race finish in his hometown of Nome. Hoy grew and who finished in eight of the top 10. times in the last decade.
Climate change has and likely will continue to play a role in how the race is run.
Warm weather due to a lack of snow in the Alaska Range forced organizers to move the start line 290 miles north from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015 and 2017. Rick Thomann, a climate expert at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that will become more common as the climate warms, and the Bering Sea ice leading to Nome could also become thinner and more dangerous.
The challenges for the world’s premier sled dog race are mounting, said Bob Dorfman, a sports branding expert with Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.
“With high costs, low reimbursements, declining sponsorship support, PETA pressure, the threat of it all, it feels more like a trend than just an anomaly,” he said. Saas earned nearly $50,000 for winning last year’s race.
Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach says the race is financially healthy, and he expects the Iditarod to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2073.
Dorfman didn’t disagree, but said the 2073 race might not look much different than this year’s.
“I don’t see Luck changing that much,” Dorfman said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be more than 30 participants.”
Saas, 43, is considered the frontrunner to win the 2023 race. Pete Kaiser, the first Yupik and fifth Alaska Native to win the race, is the only other former champion in the field.
The winner is expected in Nome about nine or 10 days after Saturday’s start.