No one who races sled dogs is going to get rich any time soon, even if they win the Iditarod.
The prize for winning the sport's premier race is $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. That doesn't even cover the annual dog food bill for many competitive mushers, who keep dozens of dogs in kennels geared to breed the sturdiest, fastest runners.
Many mushers rely on sponsors, part-time work and prizes from smaller races. Others work in seasonal jobs in tourism, construction and commercial fishing.
It's all to maintain a passion that is being played out this week in the Iditarod.
"I've got a hundred sled dogs. Each dog eats well over $1,000 worth of food every year," said defending champion Dallas Seavey of Willow. "The $50,000 cash prize covers half my food bill for the year, and that's when you win the biggest race in the sport."
Mushers can pick up a little cash along the way to the finish line in the frontier town of Nome on Alaska's wind-scoured western coast.
They are rewarded for being the first to reach certain villages dotting the trail -- including $3,000 in gold nuggets for being the first to arrive at the halfway checkpoint at the ghost town of Iditarod.
Four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks said he has two major sponsors, one for dog food and another for clothing. But he has to scrape by for the money he needs to maintain his 80-dog kennel and pay his dog handlers.
To do it right takes him at least $5,000 a month, he said. He hasn't won the Iditarod since 2010, and has seen the number of sponsors drop off. His dogs used to command high prices when he sold them. Now he can't give them away, he said.
Mackey, who also has won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race four times, is doing what he loves, but doesn't expect to ever acquire great wealth from it. No one does.
"There's people like myself that try to make a living off of racing dogs," Mackey said. "I've been as successful as anybody, and I'm still as broke as ever."
Veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, who placed second in the Iditarod last year, runs a kennel with husband Allen Moore, who won the Yukon Quest in February. Their dogs get robust support from corporate and individual sponsors, and they strive to live debt-free. They built their own home in the interior Alaska community of Two Rivers. To keep food on the table, they hunt for moose each fall and have a garden in the summer.
"We are not broke," Zirkle said. "But we don't live high on the hog."
Taking stock of this year's field of mushers prior to the race, Jake Berkowitz didn't predict a winner, but he did say who he was rooting for -- John Baker, Pete Kaiser and himself.
The Big Lake musher figured there were 15 teams that would contend for the top 10. He counted himself among that group, and for awhile late Tuesday and early Wednesday, he was the race's trail leader.
"To be in the top five this year you need a flawless run," Berkowitz said at Saturday's ceremonial start in Anchorage. "It used to be a flawless run would win it, but now you need a flawless run for the top five."
If he, Baker and Kaiser could all execute flawless runs and claim the top three spots, "that would be the ultimate," Berkowitz said.
"They're very good friends of mine," he said. "They are both people that it would be great to beat, but I'm not gonna sneak out of a checkpoint or anything to beat them."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.