Entries for the 2005 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race closed Wednesday with next year's race left shaping up a lot like a replay of this year.
Of the top-20 teams to cross the finish line in Nome back in March, only one doesn't plan to return, and it's missing more in name than reality. Norwegian Kjetil Backen, who led through the middle and into the late part of the 2004 race before falling to third at the finish, is staying home.
Taking his place, however, is dog-mushing partner Robert Sorlie. Sorlie is well known in Alaska. In 2003, he became the first and only foreigner to win an Iditarod.
He did not return to defend this year because of an agreement with Backen that they would take turns running the team they jointly own and train.
The Viking victor joins an entry list that is headed by 2004 defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling and four past champions, including four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.
Swingley was forced out last year after freezing his eyes. There was concern for a time that he might lose his vision, but he has apparently healed well enough to jump into the competition once again.
He joins Sorlie, Seavey and 94 other mushers, including two of Seavey's sons, in a near-record field. Race officials expect the entries to drop into the 80s by the race start on March 6 in downtown Anchorage.
Training injuries suffered by dogs and mushers, the expensive logistics involved in getting food and equipment stationed along the trail, or the simple lack of training due to poor weather conditions usually force several teams to withdraw.
Of the record 109 who signed up last year, only 87 made it to the start. They were an eclectic, global bunch, and this year is no different.
The Iditarod Trail Committee reports the field for 2005 contains 63 veterans and 34 rookies. There are lawyers and pilots, professional dog mushers and teachers, a retired South African farmer and a legally blind teenager from Oregon, a one-time horse trainer from California and a wildlife biologist from Fairbanks, an aging trapper from Manley and a well-known Minnesota author who provided Iditarod opponents the best ammunition they ever had against the race.
In the 1995 book "WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod,'' Gary Paulsen wrote of watching another musher maliciously kick a dog to death along the Yukon River. The book was sold as non-fiction and was reported to be an account of Paulsen's participation in the 1983 Iditarod. The passage about the sadistic dog death remains quoted by animal right's groups that consider the Iditarod abusive to dogs.
Mushers who traveled with Paulsen on the trail in 1983, however, have said the incident never happened. And race officials have no record of a dog being beaten to death in '83.
But some say it is possible that Paulsen might have been referring to an incident in the 1985 race, which he also ran. Ninilchik musher Wes McIntyre that year kicked a dog after it bit him. The dog later died, and McIntyre was disqualifed.
McIntyre never ran another Iditarod. Nor did Paulsen.
The author, who started a string of adventure books in the 1990s, says now that he has been re-infected with mushing fever, an affliction shared by others who will line up to spend 1,100 miles and a couple of weeks traveling with dogs from Anchorage to Nome.
The majority of these people, 63, are from Alaska. But there are 23 from elsewhere in the United States and 12 foreigners. Most, 78, are men. But 19 are women, including one of the state's most famous mushers.
Breast-cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow is back for another try at the championship that has so long eluded her. A midpack racer in the early 1980s, she vaulted to prominence with a ninth-place finish in 1988 and became a dominant force in the 1990s when she twice finished second. Her fortunes have soured somewhat in the new millennium as she battled health-problems and age, but she is not about to give up.
The 50-year-old finished 15th last year and can well remember when race founder Joe Redington Sr. challenged for the lead in 1988 at age 70. The late, great Joe Senior finished fifth that year, but still set the bar for the seniors in a race that has historically been owned by middle-aged mushers.
Swingley became the oldest ever to win an Iditarod when he last claimed victory in 2001 at the age of 47. Rick Swenson of Two Rivers was the youngest when he won at 25 in 1977. Swenson eventually notched a total of five victories -- the most by any musher -- but his last came in 1991. He hasn't won since turning 40. Three-time champ Jeff King of Denali Park hasn't won since 1998 when he was 42. Four-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake, whose last victory came in 2002 at age 44, dropped to 11th last year.
Meanwhile, Ramey Smyth of Big Lake, who will enter his 11th Iditarod this year at age 28, crept up to finish fourth in 2004. It was his best finish ever, and there were others from a new generation joining him in the top-20:
27-year-old Ray Redington Jr. from Two Rivers;
32-year-old Jason Barron from Lincoln, Mont.;
31-year-old Ken Anderson from Fairbanks;
35-year-old Ramy Brooks from Healy; and
28-year-old Aaron Burmeister of Nenana.
By Iditarod standards, all should just now be coming into their prime.
Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.