Thirty-three dog teams head to Nome in 51st Iditarod
By Megan Gannon
The 51st Iditarod began last weekend with 33 mushers and their teams of 14 dogs bound for Nome on a 1,000-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness.
The clock officially started as the teams left Willow in two-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. They may face deep snow in the Alaska Range, and moguls between the Nikolai and the Yukon, ferocious ground storms and wind-scoured trails along the coast and a host of other hard-to-predict challenges over varied terrain.
But on Saturday, during an untimed ceremonial race through downtown Anchorage, the mood was relaxed and joyful. Skies were blue and the bright sun provided some relief from temperatures in the single digits. Fans reached out for high-fives, trailgaters started chants and mushers tossed dog booties filled with candy into the crowd while volunteers shoveled snow onto the asphalt at intersections all along the 11-mile course that snaked from 4th Avenue to Campbell Airstrip.
“It was a lot of fun—I got a lot of my nervous energy out,” musher Mike Williams, Jr. of Akiak said as he took the harnesses off his dogs at the end of the urban trail.
A couple hours earlier, at 10 a.m., 15-year-old Emily Robinson drove the first sled out of the starting gate under the banner strung across 4th Avenue. Robinson is from Nenana and just won her second Junior Iditarod in a row. She did the honors of starting the race in memory of Lance Mackey, this year’s honorary musher.
Mackey died of throat cancer at age 52 last September. That loss looms large over this year’s race. Mackey—who was part of a prominent mushing family and won four Iditarods in a row between 2007 and 2010 as well as four Yukon Quest races—was beloved for his scrappy attitude, wit, candor and commitment to sled dogs and mushing. One of Mackey’s children joined Robinson in the sled for the symbolic ride.
This year’s race marks a bittersweet reentry into the Iditarod for Jason Mackey, Lance’s brother, who finished the race six times before he sold his kennel in 2017. In the last few years, Mackey has rebuilt that kennel in Knik. He now joins this year’s field of competitors with a young team comprised of mostly two-year-old dogs and a few older ones, including a nine-year-old leader named Rad that went to Nome seven times with Lance.
As he prepared his dog team on Saturday, Mackey said the last six months have been tough, but he’s keeping Lance’s advice at the forefront of his mind: “Don’t worry about what you can’t fix. Stay focused. Stay strong. Stay positive.”
He’s carrying Lance’s ashes in his sled.
“I have my days,” Mackey said. “I’m sure everybody does when they lose a loved one. It comes at the most bizarre times. You can’t choose when it’s going to be. I’ve ran into that a few times throughout the winter. But, you know, he’s right here with me. Through training, there’s been a few times—more than a few times—where I can hear his voice. It’s tough. I’m glad I’m alone when that happens.”
With long, desolate stretches up to 85 miles between checkpoints, Mackey and the other mushers will have a lot of time alone with their dogs ahead.
Life on the trail is a sharp contrast from all the fanfare of the race start when admirers, sponsors and media swarmed the mushers for selfies, autographs and interviews amid a chorus of barks. The excitement to get out there, to focus on their dog teams with no other distractions, was palpable among the mushers.
“The preparing for the dogs and getting down getting down the trail—that’s the part that I’ve been looking forward,” Mackey said.
“One of the things I enjoy most about living is being out in the wilderness,” Williams said.
Reigning champion Brent Sass put it another way. He told the Nugget that the Iditarod is his idea of a “vacation,” which might be unlike the definition of a vacation for an average person, or even other mushers. “My vacation is palm trees and warm beaches,” said musher Gerhardt Thiart, who was among the six mushers rescued in a ground storm in the Topkok Hills in 2022. Thiart, of South Africa, is attempting the Iditarod again this year with a team leased from Mitch Seavey’s kennel.
The conditions Sass faced during his winning race in 2022—especially in the final stretch—were a far cry from what most people would consider fun or relaxing. A severe ground storm blew him off the ice-glazed trail in the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Nome, and as he was finding his way back in zero-visibility conditions, five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was getting closer. Sass prevailed and was the first musher under the burled arch, a feat he hopes to repeat in this Iditarod.
Sass operates his Wild and Free Kennel at a remote homestead in Eureka, Alaska.
“My life is crazy,” Sass said. Now, embarking on his eighth Iditarod, he gets to spend most of his time with Slater, his main lead dog, and the rest of the team. “As soon as I get out to the Iditarod, it’s like 14 dogs, and all I got to do is get from point A to point B, so it’s definitely going to feel like a vacation.”
Earlier in the season, Sass won the 550-mile Yukon Quest.
Identical twins Kristy and Anna Berington of Seeing Double Kennel in Knik also think of the Iditarod as somewhat of a bonding experience—not only with their dogs but with each other. They plan to travel the trail together.
“It’s our favorite thing to do,” said Kristy, ready to leave for her 14th run of the race. “It allows us to see each other’s dogs—which are our dogs—so it’s a lot of fun. I hope we don’t annoy our other competitors too much when they have to pass two teams camping on the trail or on the run.”
This year’s field of mushers is the smallest in the race’s history, but it is packed with Iditarod veterans who have previously finished in the top 10, including Richie Diehl of Aniak, Jesse Holmes of Brushkana, Nic Petit of Big Lake, Matt Hall of Two Rivers, Ryan Redington of Knik (grandson of race founder Joe Redington) and Jessie Royer of Montana. And yet, many familiar faces aren’t going to be on the trail this year. Three-time champion Mitch Seavey ran his 28th race last year but isn’t competing in 2023. Neither is his son, Dallas Seavey, who has said he is spending time with his family. However, both Seaveys have dogs in the race. Christian Turner of Australia runs Mitch Seavey’s A-team, South African Gerard Thiart also leased a team from Mitch Seavey; and Iditarod veteran Kelly Maixner leased Dallas Seavey’s A-team.
Four-time winner Jeff King is now retired after competing last year at age 66. (He hadn’t planned to run, but he mushed Petit’s dog team to Nome after Petit tested positive for COVID-19 and was not allowed to run.)
Martin Buser is also done after finishing his 39th race last year.
“My body told me it was time to maybe not do strenuous activities like that,” Buser told the Nugget during last Thursday night’s banquet. “Quit while you’re ahead.” Buser ran his first race in 1980, and again in1981. He then entered and finished it consecutively from 1986 through 2022.
Nome’s Aaron Burmeister, who began racing the Iditarod in 1994, stepped away from the race this year, too. However, his dog team will race with Eddie Burke, Jr. who has been training at Burmeister’s Alaskan Wildstyle Racing Kennel in Nenana for the last few years.
“It’s definitely hard to be on the sidelines,” said Burmeister. “I’m very excited for Eddie to have the opportunity. It’s hard seeing the race team go with somebody else.”
Just 15 years ago, in 2008, a total of 95 teams started the race and a record high 78 made it to the finish line. With only 33 teams, this year’s Iditarod has the smallest field of mushers in its half-century history. While some wondered if the small field a bad sign for long-distance mushing, others brushed concerns aside.
Sass, 43, said that with so many old-timers retiring in the last five years, the sport is in the middle of a big turnover. He and Bethel’s Pete Kaiser are the only past champions in the race right now. Kaiser, who is 35, won once, in 2019, and finished fifth last year.
“I ran a lot of mid-distance races this year and they were full of young mushers that I don’t know,” Sass said. “To be honest, I find myself an old-timer all of a sudden. I felt like I was still a young guy, even last year and the year before, but now it’s like I’m one of the oldest guys in the field.”
Sass said he’s encouraged by those younger mushers coming up the pipeline, and he hopes they’ll soon be attempting the Iditarod. He’s not worried about this year’s small field and thinks in the coming years the numbers will go back up.
Other mushers, however, cited the high cost of maintaining a dog team.
“Personally, I haven’t done it since five years ago because I have a family and it takes a lot from the family—time and money wise,” Williams said. “My thinking was this year might be my last. I thought that too, in 2018. So, who knows? I’ll probably be back in a few years. I’m not gonna get out of dogs.”
The race’s purse reached a high of $925,000 in 2008 but has since dropped to about $500,000 and remained stagnant. With about $50,000 going to the winner and smaller amounts for other finishers, prize money alone does very little to offset the cost of feeding, caring for and training a dog team, especially in the face of inflation.
“The price of dog food has gone up tremendously, fuel has gone up tremendously, the purse is down a little bit,” Buser said. “Maybe it’s a temporary low. We hope so.”
Burmeister, meanwhile, wondered if changes in the culture of the race and broader cultural changes were affecting interest in mushing.
“People blame it on the economy, but the economy has been up and down for 50 years,” he said, adding that through those ups and downs, mushers have made it work. Burmeister said that when he was growing up, “we were running trap lines and snow machining and camping in the country and hunting.” He didn’t have video games or social media. “There’s a lot of change taking place,” he said.
The trail and weather forecasts
The Iditarod Trail follows a southern route in odd-numbered years. From Willow, teams head over the Alaska Range. Then, instead of going north at Ophir, they will mush to the ghost town of Iditarod that gave the race its name. They’ll pass through Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Eagle Island before reaching Kaltag and heading to the coast at Unalakleet and on to Nome.
At press time, the weather conditions look favorable for the first portion of the race.
“We might have a pretty darn good trail for a while anyway,” said Kaiser.
Burmeister agreed: “It looks like one of the nicest forecasts I’ve seen for the Iditarod in 20 years. I remember in 2000 we got to run from Anchorage to Nome in 10 above at night and 30 above during the day, so I never had to put mitts on or gloves or even a warm hat. I think we’re looking at a beautiful forecast, a little bit of a storm on the coast right now, but it should blow itself out by the time the teams get there.”
Kristy Berington said she was looked at five different weather apps to get a sense of the conditions. And she was watching that coastal storm that rocked the Norton Sound region over the weekend and early this week.
“I’m wondering what it’s going to do to the coast up there, how much water is going to be out there, and if it freezes, how much ice will be there,” she said. “We’ll see in a few days when we get that far.”
Berington had some more immediate concerns: getting through the notorious Dalzell Gorge. “I’ve been through the gorge when it’s been its worst, and it was a nightmare, and I never want to see it that way again,” she said. She was referring to 2014 when the trail in that section was “all rocks and ice and extremely dangerous.”
“Every time I go down it since 2014, I have flashbacks of that event,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Sass wasn’t putting too much weight on the forecasts.
“The conditions change so fast,” he said. “They say we’re gonna have a decent trail, and there’s mostly snow cover, but I’m prepared for anything. The dogs are ready for anything. The weather has been going up and down on the coast so much that you can’t really prepare for much.”
Likewise, Dan Kaduce—the musher from Chatanika who finished fourth place last year and was the only competitor to reach Nome with all 14 dogs he started with—was keeping his expectations open.
“It’s so far and you go through so much different terrain that you’ll see deep snow, no snow, ice, fresh snow,” Kaduce said. “I think we’ll probably see it all.”
See more photos on pages 9 and 10.