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Iditarod fans must carry the torch to improve the race

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 23, 2017

Emily peeks out from under her blanket in Tanana. Her musher, Roger Lee, is an active member of the U.S. Air Force and took a one-year sabbatical to run the Iditarod. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The 2017 Iditarod is now behind us. The marathon plays a large part of Alaska's wintertime persona, so it behooves us to take a close look at how the race is run.

All sporting events evolve as they age, and the Iditarod, now 45 years old, is no exception. Horse racing changed from fast farm horses running across the back 40 to millions of dollars invested in fragile 2-year-olds running the Kentucky Derby.

In what direction do we want to see the Iditarod go?

The Iditarod is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Thus all of us who watch or donate to the race — even if only by buying Iditarod memorabilia or a subscription to the GPS tracker that's part of the race's Iditarod Insider package — have a legitimate voice in the direction of the event.

Some of us are able follow the race closely and become familiar with the race's innermost workings. And several aspects of the Iditarod should go under the microscope immediately.

Dropped dogs

In the last few years, questions have been raised concerning the care of dropped Iditarod dogs. A couple of dogs have died while under the care of the race committee, including one this year.

In fairness, the committee relies almost exclusively on volunteers, and it's impossible to monitor every situation and every animal in an event that spans nearly 1,000 miles over a two-week period. Finding fault is easy. Providing workable solutions is much harder.

Chief Iditarod veterinarian Stuart Nelson and Iditarod musher Kristin Bacon evaluate her sled dog Lil Bear in the village of Tanana during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Bacon dropped Lil Bear because of a sore shoulder. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

But there is certainly room for improvement.

Currently, dropped dogs are fastened on short tethers on long drop chains at checkpoints. The dogs have straw and are cared for by volunteers and monitored by veterinarians.

However, dogs are left behind for a reason — typically health reasons. In this year's Iditarod, a total of 435 dogs were dropped from the 71 teams racing between Fairbanks and Nome.

It would be relatively simple, and cheap, to provide a wooden dog box for these animals to provide additional protection from weather.

Dropped dogs are transported by air from the drop location to a central hub, before returning to Anchorage and a waiting representative of the individual musher.

This year's race saw dogs dropped at the Koyukuk checkpoint transported to Unalakleet, where they sat for several days before being transported farther. At one point in the race, there were almost 60 dogs waiting in Unalakleet.

A common practice in moving dogs is to fasten them with a cable drop line to the floor of a single-engine aircraft. At times, there are as many as eight or nine animals fastened in a 4-by-5-foot cargo area.

Improvement is needed in both of these areas. It will cost more, but dog care should always be the Iditarod's primary concern.

Resting dogs

The topic of dogs' well being leads to a more controversial question: Should drivers be allowed to intentionally rest dogs while the teams are moving?

Some believe dog racing should stay traditional — with the animals that race running on the line unless they are injured. Others may point to the fact that teams have always rested a dog in the sled when the musher felt it benefitted a particular dog.

Resting a single important leader is one thing. Resting three or four dogs at a time is, to me, quite different. But there's a range of viewpoints out there. One way to address the question would be to reduce the number of dogs allowed in a team from the present maximum of 16. Expect the Iditarod Trail Committee to address the issue.

The dog-resting question leads to other issues.

Over the years, the expense of the fielding an Iditarod team has been a major factor separating contenders from mushers happy to just finish. If ferrying dogs in and out of the running team is now essential to keeping a team competitive, top mushers will need to make some major sled changes. This can be extremely costly in an event that already pushes many teams, especially those without major sponsors, to the marginal edge of competition.

Competition brings out the best effort among all participants, and the Iditarod is no exception. An event that used to be an adventure to be savored has inevitably become a hardcore race against time. The front end of the field cuts a fine line on the teams' running and resting schedule, and the back of the pack is pulled along by the momentum.

This year's Iditarod saw the red-lantern finisher in Nome in 12 days and 2 hours. That time, by far the fastest last-place finish in race history, would have won 14 prior Iditarods. This may be a logical progression of the sport, but as supporters, we need to ask whether that is the type of race we wish to see.

Carrying the torch

Changes are necessary and inevitable in the Iditarod — as in any sporting event. As dog racing fans and participants, it is our duty to be vigilant.

The dog driver is only one cog in the team. Avid race watchers know the driver's name, but how many of the 16 dogs in the team do you know? The primary focus of the Iditarod should be the dogs that run. They can't petition for better care, nor for a change in running conditions. So we who watch the Iditarod must carry the torch.

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 International Sled Dog Race. His wife Zoya DeNure finished 57th in this year's Iditarod.

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