Alaska’s newest sled dog race breaks an alternative trail

A slower pace and a community vibe just might be the future of mushing

FAIRBANKS — As the sun began to rise over the frozen Tanana River on Saturday, competitors made their way to the start of Alaska’s newest sled dog race, the Tanana Valley Sled Dog Races, or T-Dog. In many ways the scene was familiar. Handlers unloaded dogs from the trucks, prepared the lines and attached the sleds, and helped the mushers with whatever they needed. But for this race, the roles were often reversed.

While musher Jennifer Nelson sat next to her sled, getting her hair braided for good luck, her handler for the day, Bridgett Watkins, was running around getting the dogs unloaded and the sled prepped. Normally it’s Nelson who is handling for Watkins, a Salcha musher who finished her first Iditarod in 2023.

Across the parking lot, a similar scene unfolded as Hayden Caron, a handler for Bailey Vitello, was preparing for his longest race so far, the 110-mile T-Dog. Like Watkins, Vitello finished his first Iditarod in 2023, and today he was helping his handler get ready to race.

Caron, wearing an Iditarod sweatshirt, was looking forward to the race. While it would be his longest, it wasn’t that different from the training runs he takes with the dogs. “Same thing, different place,” he said. “More of a fun run type of thing.”

Legendary pedigree

The T-Dog is the brainchild of Tekla Butcher-Monson, daughter of four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher. Butcher-Monson, whose nickname is also T-Dog, designed a series of three races — 50- and 110-mile multisport races, and a 200-mile mushing-only Iditarod qualifier.

When Butcher-Monson was born in 1995, her mother had retired from racing. Yet she grew up in a home steeped in mushing. Her father, Dave Monson, is a former Yukon Quest champion, and her parents would tell stories of their experiences mushing and visiting villages across the state. The family continues to operate a kennel, now focused on tourism. After Susan Butcher died in 2006 from leukemia, Dave and 11-year-old Tekla mushed 700 miles of the Iditarod trail, scattering Susan’s ashes along the way.

“I got to meet the people who had known her in the checkpoints,” said Tekla, during an interview at her family’s Fairbanks kennel on the eve of the T-Dog. “And the great thing about that run was it really was just a camping trip. It was kind of like the first Iditarod. We were running during the day, resting in the villages at night, so much time to hang out with people and see the country change.”

One of the lessons she learned from that trip, and a similar one in 2012 when her younger sister Chisana turned 11, was that as much as she loved the solitary peaceful time mushing with the dogs, she also appreciated the time spent in the villages and the human interactions along the way.


After college, Tekla returned to Fairbanks to run the family business, and she started spending more time at the family’s homestead in Eureka, around 75 miles northwest of Fairbanks. “I was like, gosh, I’d love to get more people out using these trails,” she said. And so the idea of doing a race, in my mom’s name, on the trails that she used to travel, kind of appeared.”

A 1,000-mile camping trip

For the Iditarod, treating the race like a camping trip simply isn’t possible anymore, because the competition is so fast. “I’ve been kind of vocal about the Iditarod,” said Jeff King, a four-time champion who was getting his team ready for the 50-mile race to Nenana. “This year in particular, I’ve been thinking, you know, we need to do something to slow it down. We disqualify people at a pace that would have been a record pace 20 years ago. I love the race and everything, but it doesn’t need to be eight days.”

When asked about the format of the T-Dog 200, where the first half of the race isn’t timed, King pointed out that it’s a style that has worked in the past, even for highly competitive races. “The Coldfoot Classic in the ‘90s, late ‘80s, was dreamed up by Dick Mackey because the (Gates of the Arctic National Park) wouldn’t let us race through the park,” he said. “So he goes, ‘OK, the race starts in Anaktuvuk Pass, and we won’t race while we’re going through the park, we’ll just race when we get to the other side of the park.’”

“I love the format because it brings the finish closer together because everybody gets to restart even if you have dramatically different abilities in the team,” said King. “And the first half is still a long damn ways, and it’s really nice not to have to rush that first hundred miles. I love that format. I’m totally, totally into it.”

“I think it’s a super-duper format even for a competitive race,” King said. “In fact, I think the Iditarod could consider it. Race restarts in McGrath, I don’t know, restarts in Kaltag. Everybody’s got to be there. We’ve got to come 700 miles and then let’s ... race. I mean, I think it’s an awesome idea.”

Fellow Iditarod finisher Bridgett Watkins disagrees with King on what the Iditarod might learn from the laid-back format of the T-Dog. “The Iditarod’s a different race,” she said. “It’d be like saying, ‘Do you think the Super Bowl can change?’ Not that it can’t, but should it? It’s just that it is what it is. The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl, the Iditarod is the Iditarod.”

“I appreciate each race for what it is,” said Watkins. “Everything’s always adapting and changing. So, yeah, can some things change? Absolutely. But I think each race runs their own race and does a really good job of it.”

Iditarod at a crossroads

Dog mushing, designated as the Alaska state sport in 1972, once captivated the hearts of residents and visitors, but today it’s at a crossroads. Very large crowds used to descend on Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, lining Fourth Avenue to watch the teams mush through town. Big-name sponsors lined up as well, infusing the race with money to support the planes, personnel and purse that make the race possible.

Today, the crowds that come for the Iditarod are still there, but they’re noticeably smaller. So too is the prize money paid out to the winners, which peaked at over $925,000 in 2008, when 78 mushers finished the race. This year, the Iditarod distributed $550,000 to 29 finishers. And many longtime sponsors, under pressure from animal rights activists, have ended their support for the race.

The Yukon Quest, another roughly 1,000-mile dog sled race, was for years a grueling proving ground for mushers with Iditarod dreams. The race ran between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon, switching directions each year but was split in two in 2021 during a period of financial pressure and questions about the status of the Canada-U.S. border during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participation at that point was also in decline, with only 15 entrants in 2020.

Then after the 2022 race, the Alaska organizers announced that they were ending their partnership with their Canadian counterparts, largely due to differences in the amount of mandatory rest stops built into the race. Canadian organizers were pushing for more rest for the dog teams, and the split effectively ended the race itself. Today, the Yukon Quest Alaska lives on as a series of much shorter 80-, 200-, and 300-mile races.

While the sport’s marquee events are facing these headwinds, the T-Dog, with its slower approach and emphasis on community and mentorship, might be coming along at the perfect time.


“The (Iditarod) race, I think, lost a lot of what it really stood for when you’ve had so much community involvement in the villages, because you got to know the families, you knew the grandmothers, you knew the grandkids,” said Dave Monson, recalling a period when the Iditarod was a much slower race. “You basically knew who won at bingo the week before, you know, so it was really personal. So I think that’s what she’s (Tekla) trying to bring back, is a little of that feeling.”

“When Vernon (Halter, fellow Yukon Quest champ) and I were running, it wasn’t Formula One,” said Monson. “We didn’t have a real slick trail, snowmachines weren’t involved, and you’d go shorter distances before you camped out.”

The last time Susan Butcher won the Iditarod, in 1990, she took just over 11 days to finish, a time that would have put her near the back of the pack in the 2024 race (24th place out of 29 finishers this year).

Following in the footsteps of the 1925 Serum Run

The Iditarod was born out of an appreciation for Alaska’s rich mushing history, perhaps most notably the 1925 serum run, where teams of dog mushers carried diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome, helping to save the town from the deadly epidemic.

At the 50-mile T-Dog finish line in Nenana, where the historic 1925 serum run began, volunteers held up a banner against the wind as competitors trickled in. In contrast with the serum run, where temperatures in January 1925 were south of 40 degrees below zero, for the T-Dog the temps were well above freezing.

First across the line was the shirtless Fairbanks musher Sean de Wolski, who skijored with four of his canine athletes. De Wolski smoked the competition in the weekend’s shortest race, finishing 28 minutes ahead of the first musher, 16-year-old Tori Boulding. Afterwards he gave most of the credit for his win to his dogs. “I only kicked about 50 times the whole race,” he said, as he and his now-loosed dogs rested by a fire on the muddy riverbank while he drank a beer, waiting for a friend to deliver his truck from Fairbanks. Rounding out third place was fat tire biker Connor Truskowski, who raced without the aid of any canine companions.


As the rest of the skiers, bikers, and mushers trickled into the checkpoint in Nenana, a bluegrass band played in a nearby social hall, entertaining competitors and community members alike.

“There are so many people that want to do this kind of stuff, but don’t feel the need to do it as competitively,” said Tekla Butcher-Monson, who darted back and forth between the band and the finish line on the river outside. “Yes, we will have somebody who finishes first, but for the most part it’s about being out there together with our dogs.”

Even though the race is organized around a set of values more expansive than simply winning, it still attracts big-name mushers who are known for being seriously competitive.

“Good morning, Jeff,” said Vern Halter, a retired musher and former 1,000-mile Yukon Quest champion, as Butcher-Monson’s dad Dave Monson recorded cell phone video for social media. “Why would a four-time Iditarod champion, a Kusko (Kuskokwim 300) champion, a Yukon Quest champion, be running this race?”

“I’m 68 years old,” said King. “I have a 39-year-old daughter who wanted to race, and my grandkids are going to be here. And we chose this race mainly because the kids get to see the start and the finish.”

Being a brand-new race, King is already thinking of ways to make it more fun. “I’m going to be talking to Tekla to see if next year we can carry a passenger in the sled for the 50,” he said, “because both my grandkids want to come really bad. And it would be fun.”

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Loren Holmes

Loren Holmes is a staff photojournalist at the Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at