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Fulfilling Iditarod dreams exceptionally pricey for foreign mushers

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 2, 2016

It's not cheap to run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And it's especially not cheap if you're a musher traveling from overseas for the 1,000-mile journey to Nome.

The Iditarod lineup this year features a record number of mushers who live outside of North America. Eight listed their home on the Iditarod's website as Norway, one as the United Kingdom and one as Sweden. Last year, seven foreign mushers started the race; nine did in 2014.

To get to this year's Iditarod start line, the mushers have taken different routes — none cheap. Some sent sled dog teams on airplanes, others leased teams in Alaska and at least one acquired a visa so he could remain in the state for several years.

But Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom, 29, said it's worth the effort to run the Iditarod, widely considered the Super Bowl of sled dog racing.

"All of the mushers in Norway are probably dreaming about running the Iditarod because we've heard so much about it," said Ulsom, who has placed in the top 10 in each of the three Iditarods he has run, including an extraordinary seventh place as a rookie. "It was a dream of mine to run this race."

Selling a pub

Kim Franklin lives on 37 acres of land in Hertfordshire, England about 40 miles northeast of London, she said. She owns horses as well as dogs, though none of her British dogs are prepared to race to Nome.

To run the Iditarod, Franklin is leasing a sled dog team from former Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, who lives in Clam Gulch on the Kenai Peninsula. Osmar, who started his last Iditarod in 2003, said he charges about $100,000 for the two-winter program. The first winter, Franklin competed in two qualifying races. This winter she will run the Iditarod. She will celebrate her 50th birthday this week.

"Basically, last winter, I managed to pay for it out of savings and various bits and pieces. This winter I actually sold a property," Franklin said, referring to selling her pub. "It was the right business decision."

Franklin said she first became interested in dog mushing in the late 1980s when she bought an Alaskan malamute, Nikki, as a house pet. Soon she had a handful dogs and would run them for fun, often hooking them to a three-wheeled cart.

She said she became fascinated with Alaska and the Iditarod and flew the trail during the 2002 and 2006 races. In 2006, she also had a spot in the sled of Osmar's son, Tim. After the 11-mile Anchorage ceremonial start, she said she knew she wanted to return. She decided to travel to Alaska again and train with the elder Osmar.

"Some people think I'm just completely mad," she said. "I think a lot of my English friends don't actually get it. I think they don't understand how tough it is. My American friends do."

When asked what makes it worth it, she laughed and said "I wish I had some smartass answer." It's the dogs, the mountains and the snow, she said. "It's not like a bucket list thing. It kind of gets under your skin when you get here."

Franklin lives in a dry cabin on Osmar's property, spending her days taking care of the dogs and hooking them up for training runs through the Caribou Hills. She still must pay for her airfare, among other costs.

She said she moved into Osmar's cabin in December and will return home at the end of March. She has sponsors, but because of the high price of running the Iditarod, she said she can't do it every year.

"I think I would end up single and very poor if I were to run it every year," she said.

Pet passports

To get to this year's Iditarod, Mats Pettersson said he drove from his home in Kiruna, Sweden to Frankfurt, Germany and shipped 10 of his dogs by cargo plane to Anchorage.

Pettersson, a 45-year-old who runs a tourism business in Sweden, will start his third Iditarod this year. He placed 25th in 2015 and 29th the year before that, winning a total of $9,600 in prize money — hardly enough to pay the cost of transporting sled dogs overseas.

But Pettersson said he's drawn to the Iditarod because of the competition. Placing in the Iditarod's top 20 is like placing top 20 in the world, he said.

Pettersson has run dogs since 2000 after he bought a dog named Shasta from four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. Later, he bought another named Rhumba. That started his kennel and his breeding program, he said.

When Pettersson arrived in Anchorage this year with 10 dogs who flew by cargo plane, he already had five dogs living in Alaska — dogs he'd brought to the state earlier. They stayed at musher Mike Santos' kennel in Cantwell, he said, and one of Pettersson's friends trained them.

But Pettersson said he would recommend mushers who travel to the Iditarod by airplane send their dogs as checked baggage, instead of cargo. It's less complicated and there's less paperwork. He said he's paid about $450 to check each dog. Each dog travels with a pet passport, showing they are up-to-date on vaccinations and testing.

Flyers can travel with up to four dogs, he said. In previous years, he has brought over himself and two other people with 12 dogs total. Because his dogs are used to flying, "they're really calm" during travel, he said.

This year, Pettersson is the lone Swedish musher in a race with a flood of mushers from a neighboring country. "Everyone thinks I'm Norwegian when I'm over here," he said and laughed. "I'm not the Norwegian guy, I'm the Swedish guy."

Lars Monsen, 52, is one of the eight Norwegian mushers running this year's Iditarod. It's his first Iditarod and he said he's saved up about $60,000 over about four years to afford the costs of traveling to Alaska, as well as the costs of living and training in the state for several months.

"Everything I earn goes into this," he said.

Monsen, who has written 18 books about his expeditions, said he wanted to run the 1,000-mile race to Nome for the adventure, to see the nature and to meet the people who live along the trail. He started mushing in 1990.

When Monsen flew to Anchorage this January, he said he brought with him 20 dogs and four other people — each assigned to four dogs. The dogs stayed in Alaska and the people flew home within a couple days, he said.

He loaded up a truck he had purchased when he was in Alaska for the Iditarod rookie meeting in December. He said he stayed with friends in Big Lake before moving into a dry cabin near Fairbanks.

Monsen said he first became interested in the Iditarod when friends, including two-time Norwegian champion Robert Sorlie, traveled to Alaska to race. He said he knows the other Norwegian mushers, including Sorlie, but they don't train or plan to race together.

"We're competitors out there, but friendly competitors," he said.

Sorlie, 58, told The Associated Press last week this will likely be his last Iditarod — because of his age and the cost. This year, he said, it will cost him about $60,000 to run the race, including the costs to fly his dogs and handlers to Alaska.

A multiyear stay

Ulsom, the 29-year-old Norwegian, has never placed lower than seventh in the Iditarod. This year he starts his fourth race.

For the past four years, Ulsom has lived in Willow with a unique setup. He has a visa to live in the United States as an athlete, he said. On a sports visa for an individual athlete, the length of stay is capped at a decade.

Ulsom races as a member of Racing Beringia — part of GoNorth! Adventure Learning, a nonprofit program that creates K-12 education plans based on expeditions, like the Iditarod, said his girlfriend, Mille Porsild, the nonprofit's executive director.

When Ulsom moved to Alaska he said he first flew to Chicago and met up with Porsild. He brought over 17 of his dogs, all with pet passports, at a cost of about $10,000, he said. They loaded into a truck and drove to Alaska. Now in Willow, he said he has about 36 dogs, plus puppies.

Porsild said as part of Ulsom's visa, he can't earn any income. So the $113,100 he has won the past three years has filtered back into the nonprofit. However, the nonprofit and Ulsom's sponsors pay for his expenses in Alaska, she said.

Ulsom said mushing in Alaska comes with a list of benefits. Here, he said it's easier to get out and train. In Norway, mushers can't bring out a snowmachine in most places to help break the trail. And even though he doesn't collect the race winnings, he said the money Iditarod mushers get for winning races far exceeds what he would get back home.

"Alaska seems to be the place if you want to be a competitive dog musher," he said.

Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser agreed. Born in Switzerland, Buser became an American citizen at the end of the 2002 Iditarod, under the burled arch in Nome. He carried an American flag all the way to victory that year.

"If you have a snowball's chance in hell to make sled dog racing or mushing even a remote part of your livelihood, the Iditarod is the key to success," he said.

Buser said it's "exceedingly rare" for an American musher to travel overseas to mush dogs. The race winnings over there don't compare, leaving an unsustainable financial equation once mushers pay to fly over their dog teams. Plus, he said the Iditarod is the "world's greatest, most challenging" race.

"It's pretty much one-way traffic," Buser said about mushers coming over to Alaska. "If you had the chance to play in the Super Bowl, would you show up?"

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