50th Iditarod begins with 49 dog teams heading to Nome
By RB Smith
The 50th Iditarod kicked off to a snowy start last weekend, as 49 mushers hit the 1,100-mile trail to Nome. The race is the first full Iditarod to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic, after last year’s participants took a modified route that both started and ended in Willow.
On Saturday, teams mushed through slushy, near-freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall in Anchorage for the ceremonial start, another Iditarod tradition that was cancelled last year due to COVID. Despite the pandemic, hundreds of spectators crowded along Fourth Avenue to watch the mushers parade by.
On Sunday, mushers started the official race from Willow under clear, sunny skies and a good crowd lining the start chute on Willow Lake. The dog teams are currently on the trail, and the first finishers are expected to come into Nome early next week, depending on trail conditions
The Iditarod has instituted several COVID-prevention policies this year, including mandatory vaccination and testing for all mushers and support staff and limited access into the “musher bubble” for the general public.
Different checkpoint communities along the way are instituting their own policies when it comes to the influx of mushers, media and volunteers that come with the race. Many villages are welcoming the race as normal – Ruby and Galena are planning their normal Iditarod celebrations, according to Race Marshal Mark Nordman, and Unalakleet has “80 pounds of bacon, ready to go.”
Other villages have opted for a more careful approach. Nulato has set up a separate race center rather than hosting mushers in the village school, and White Mountain has asked the Iditarod to set up a separate checkpoint encampment outside the village.
Takotna, historically an important checkpoint where many mushers choose to take their 24-hour layover, has opted not to open the community to mushers at all this year because of COVID concerns. “We’re really missing the hospitality of Takotna,” Nordman said, “but received notice that they’ll still drop off food for the mushers as they go by, so the support is still there.” He said mushers may choose to spend more time in nearby Ophir, McGrath or Cripple.
This year’s honorary musher is Joe Redington, Sr., who is widely known as the “Father of the Iditarod.” He died in 1999 but was named honorary musher for the 50th anniversary in recognition of his lasting impact on the sport. While he didn’t participate in the first race to Nome, he did so 19 times between 1974 and 1997. He ran his last race when he was 80-years-old. His grandson Ryan Redington of Knik is competing in this year’s race.
Among this year’s lineup is last year’s winner Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna, along with his father, Iditarod veteran and three-time winner Mitch Seavey of Seward. The 2022 Iditarod marked Dallas Seavey’s fifth win, tying him with Rick Swenson for the most career wins ever.
Also in the running is Nome’s own Aaron Burmeister, who came in second in last year’s Iditarod. Burmeister has said that this may be his last year competing in the race, and he will be shooting for his first Iditarod win after multiple close calls.
At 63-years-old, Martin Buser of Big Lake is one of the oldest mushers to compete in this year’s race, along with Mitch Seavey at 63 and Jeff King at 66. This is Buser’s 39th Iditarod since his first time running the race in 1980.
Pete Kaiser of Bethel and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway are two more former champions competing this year. Kaiser won in 2019 but scratched last year in McGrath because of sick dogs on his team. Ulsom won in 2018, and both will be running for their second career win.
Longtime veteran Jeff King did not plan to run this year’s Iditarod until he got a call from fellow musher Nicholas Petit less than a week before the start. Petit had recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was disqualified from the race, so he was looking for someone else to run his team. “I made some calls fishing for the person most appropriate to take them kids to Nome. I landed a big fish!” Petit wrote in a Facebook post announcing the switch. “The King of the trails gets to take them, cause well, I trust that guy to put the dogs first. I trust him to take a team he knows from afar and go race them to their full ability.”
King had to back out of the 2020 Iditarod because of a last-minute medical problem just a few weeks before the race, when his handler Sean Underwood took the team on the trail. Now King will get another chance to compete in his 29th race. King’s rookie run was in 1981.
Other notable racers this year include Apayuaq Reitan of Kaktovik, daughter of renowned musher Ketil Reitan. Apayuaq Reitan’s rookie Iditarod was in 2019, and this year she will be the first transgender woman to ever compete in the race.
Rookie Hanna Lyrek is this year’s youngest racer at just 22-years-old. Originally from Alaska, she moved to Norway at the age of nine, but has made the long journey back with her dogs to compete in mushing’s greatest event.
Missing from the lineup is beloved musher Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, who announced that last year would be her final Iditarod, but then was injured early in the race and had to be airlifted to Anchorage for her injuries. She has chosen not to return to the race this year.
Thomas Waerner of Norway, who won in 2020 during his second Iditarod ever, has also elected not to race in 2022. After winning two years ago in his second Iditarod ever, Waerner became stranded in Alaska for eleven weeks as the then-novel coronavirus swept the globe and flights back to Norway were cancelled. He ultimately was able to hitch a ride with his dogs on a 64-year-old cargo jet that had been purchased by a Norwegian aviation museum.
Conditions on the trail this year will be snowy, according to Race Marshal Nordman, but the trails were all in good condition as of last week. Trail breakers on snowmachines packed down the freshest snow before the race’s start. “It’ll be a really nice trail,” Nordman said.
The heavy snow also raises concerns about moose, which like to travel along the trails when snow elsewhere becomes too deep. Mushers are allowed to use any means to deter moose but are required to pack the full carcass to the nearest checkpoint if one is killed, Nordman said. Mushers training for the Iditarod and other races had experienced dreadful moose attacks on trails this winter.
The Iditarod Weather Center predicts relatively warm temperatures for most of the race, but Nordman was not concerned. “Any of these mushers can stop wherever they want and take a long break,” he said. “If it’s too warm, they’ll stop – it’s a long way to Nome.”