The end of November brings thoughts of racing sled dogs. If you live in the Fairbanks area or near Willow, it is a common occurrence to see a dog team running by the side of the road.
Snow has come to most areas of the state and though the ice may still a little shaky, most folks training dogs have safe trails. There are dog teams getting ready for the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, but not quite as many as there used to be.
The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod are considered to be the premier long-distance races in the world. The race distance of 1,000 miles, along with the perceived loneliness and obstacles of trail, catch the imagination of the public. These things also bring rookie mushers to the races, eager to participate in the mystique of the North.
Veteran mushers, though they harbor much of the same feelings, are faced with the stark realities of getting a team of 14 huskies on the trail. The more competitive you are, the greater the cost. A few years ago, I calculated the base cost of both the Quest and the Iditarod. The numbers I came up with were $15,000 for the Iditarod and about $10,000 for the Yukon Quest.
Those numbers only include actual, immediate race costs. They do not include training costs associated with with race, nor the expense of maintaining a dog team for the other 11 months of the year. In the past, those costs were not necessarily pertinent because folks already had dogs in their yard. They kept or used dogs independent of racing.
Most of today’s mushers keep a relatively large dog yard with the primary focus of racing. Expensive. That is why there aren’t many dog teams left in Bush communities. A 50-pound bag of junk dog food is going to have $50 bill added on as freight. The result is teams off the road system have to feed a lot of fish to their dogs to make ends meet. Fish, both salmon and whitefish, are very good dog food, but they are not stand-alone feeds for the racing Alaskan husky.
The increased nutritional requirements of a racing sled dog are well-documented. A pound of salmon with 900 calories per pound can’t compete with a commercial race food with double the calorie count. There are a few Bush teams that are able to overcome these obstacles, notably teams from hubs like Bethel, Kotzebue and Nome. Some of those mushers are well-funded by sponsors and are willing to pour many of their personal resources into their addiction.
Their numbers are diminishing however. In most of the years prior to 2010, there were between 90 to 100 teams participating in the Quest and the Iditarod combined. So far, only 70 teams have signed up for the 2020 races. That is the lowest combined total since the 80s.
Entries for the Quest ended Friday night at midnight. There are 17 people signed up, the lowest number in race history. Iditarod entries close Monday, and as of Saturday there were 53 teams entered. Last year, 52 teams left the start line.
Some have suggested the low numbers are due to pressure from anti-mushing groups. I disagree. Economics rules the world and nothing is more basic than feeding a dog yard. If there are 50 dogs in a yard. that means $37,000 in yard expenses. That does not include any race expenses.
The Yukon Quest has a $100,000 purse. It pays $19,000 to the winner and $3,700 for 10th place. Make those numbers pencil out.
The Iditarod has a decent purse of $500,000. It pays $22,000 for 10th place. That doesn’t cover kennel expenses, but at least it gets the direct cost of the race back.
Another factor that may come into play, though it is tough to quantify, is the shrinking number of people willing to shoulder the commitment of owning a bunch of sled dogs. Sled dogs are a lifestyle requiring full-time participation. You can’t have 40 dogs today and then decide next summer you no longer want them. There are not that many homes for unwanted sled dogs. Dogs are bought and sold, but we are speaking of fairly small numbers, and most dog swaps are usually among serious racers.
The next time a dog team flashes by the window of your car or you see them run on TV, consider the sacrifice mushers make to provide us with that entertainment.
And it is not just entertainment. It is the preservation of an era we cannot afford to lose in this day of fast food and the artificial plastic world of electronics.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.