Outdoors/Adventure

Is dog mushing a dying sport? It’s certainly dwindling, and here’s why

Kobuk 440, sled dog race, mushing, arctic, spring

Is dog mushing a dying sport? A look at the anemic entry list on the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest would certainly lead one to that conclusion. Iditarod entries currently number less than 30. The Yukon Quest had almost no one enter the 2022 event and 2023 presently has 11 teams signed up to run the 550-mile event.

The rising costs in a sport that provides little potential for return is certainly an important factor. Dog food prices have risen between 20-40% in the past couple of years. Gasoline prices, an item one might think not so important to a dog yard, has a terrific impact on a racing team.

Dogs begin training in August, long before there is snow. The team is hitched to an ATV to start conditioning. Young dogs, dogs new to the team and older veterans all will get their start on the four-wheeler. An ATV is a 10-mile-per-gallon rig.

August, September, October. November is half gone by, and many kennels do not yet have adequate snow for a sled. A long distance yard will be doing 40-mile runs or better by now.

Economics is big reason for declining entries, certainly. Other factors are not so cut-and-dried, not so easy to see or understand. The older mushers who we have watched for many seasons are just that: older. They still like their critters and enjoy the trail, but it may be tougher to get motivated for the training grind.

The next tier of drivers are in the family-raising years. That makes it hard to justify the time away from family to train and race. Young guys and gals? There just aren’t as many outdoorsy folks as there used to be.

Long distance races have been tweaking their formats a bit in hopes of attracting more competitors. The Iditarod definitely has a residue of COVID-19 issues. The race route and resulting checkpoint protocols leave little room for change.

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The Yukon Quest Alaska has made major changes to its format since COVID-19 and the resulting break with the Canadians. The Quest has become a 550-mile race. This may be more attractive to the new age musher.

A look at sign-up lists on both Quest and Iditarod will show many names unfamiliar to the average mushing fan. The dog driver of today wants more race support, better trails, media coverage and a decent purse. Drivers want to have contact with their home kennels and friends while on the trail. That means electronics.

On the other hand, sprint races are not facing the same issues. Indeed, sprints have not suffered quite the same downturn. The entries for the more visible races, at least in Alaska, have shown a small uptick. Sprinters have an easier time managing their dog yards than distance runners. There are fewer dogs and less training time in most sprint yards. Sprint drivers can train dogs after work.

The troubling factor in sprint, as well as distance, is the lack of young folks. Where are the upcoming dog drivers? Maybe at home? I talked with several young people, not in Alaska, who work in humane society kennels and with large animal shelters.

The kids tell me they are having to work a lot of overtime because of the lack of available help. I was told unequivocally that young people want to work from home — online. We don’t necessarily have to buy that, but it is an interesting concept.

There are undoubtedly many more factors involved in the decline of racing dog teams. Trail access — especially for stateside and out of country teams — is also a major contributor to the dearth of entries. When Fur Rendezvous time comes around, we will see what part the economy is playing in our state sport. Whatever the reasons for the downturn, this is nothing new for the sport. Dog racing has ebbed and risen again since the early 1900s. Let us hope this is the bottom of the downturn. Dog driving is probably the only sport that celebrates the days of yesteryear; let’s not lose it.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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