The territory of Alaska and dog mushing grew up together, with dog sleds a viable mode of travel and freight hauling in rural areas well into the second half of the 20th century. Mushing is deeply engrained in Alaska’s cultural legacy — colorful figures such as Herbie Nayokpuk, the “Shishmaref Cannonball,” and George Attla, the “Huslia Husler,” were once as well-known to racing fans in Alaska as Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt was to NASCAR devotees in the Lower 48. Then and now, mushing is a way of life, one that requires uncommon devotion, extreme physical endurance and a considerable expenditure of resources to keep a racing team well-fed and in competitive shape.
For all of those reasons, distance mushing is facing what we’re likely to one day look on as an inflection point that determined the future of the sport — but will its trajectory from here trend upward to a new heyday, or downward into irrelevance?
The COVID-19 pandemic was disruptive to mushing, as it was to so many aspects of our lives, but it was far from the first or only factor affecting the competitive sled dog racing scene. In 2016, a whopping 85 mushers entered the Iditarod. Two years later, that number was 67. Two years after that, it was 57, and two years after that, it was 49. This year, only 34 entrants will make their way toward Nome — tying the all-time low in race history.
To the north, the situation with Alaska’s other big distance mushing race, the Yukon Quest, looks even tougher. The pandemic and cross-border tensions between the race’s two governing bodies led to the race being bifurcated into separate events on either side of the border in 2021, a state of affairs that has persisted since and done neither version of the race any favors. This year, a paltry nine mushers entered the 550-mile American edition of the race. The 450-mile Canadian race’s field was even smaller, at just six mushers. The longer the races suffer from such anemic participation, the more the question grows: How many participants are too few to justify the logistics, volunteer hours, veterinary care, prize sponsorships and so on that are needed for a serious distance mushing event?
We’re certainly not hoping for the demise of the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest — quite the contrary, it would be terrific to see the races thrive again and return to their former glory, when full competitive fields of mushers kept things exciting from start to finish. But to deny the seriousness of the stakes for distance mushing at this point would be the surest way to relegate Alaska’s major races to a slide into obscurity.
Even the high-octane Iron Dog, now underway, isn’t immune from some of the same difficulties that have affected distance mushing. In 2018, race organizers seriously considered canceling the 2019 race because of financial difficulties. In 2021, citing financial trouble partly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, race organizers cut Fairbanks and several river communities out of the course, opting for a logistically simpler Big Lake-to-Nome-and-back round trip. At the time, race staff vowed they would include Fairbanks again as soon as they could, but it has yet to happen.
Put simply, whether the Iditarod, Yukon Quest and Iron Dog will survive a generation from now is up to all of us. Without active participation from competitors, sponsors and fans alike, it’s hard to see a viable path forward — the days of big national backing for the races are gone. But if we value the races’ place in our state and its culture, there can be enough support to carry them forward. Volunteers are always needed, and donations to the races themselves or payment for GPS race trackers are a good way to provide individual support. And more than anything else, if you’re invested in the fates of these races, spread the word to others who feel the same way.