Iditarod

It’s been a rough winter for the Iditarod. But now it’s showtime.

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: March 1
  • Published March 1

Mitch Seavey and lead dogs Pilot and Crisp sit under the burled arch in Nome after winning the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

The Iditarod's winter of discontent – a doping scandal, diminished sponsorships, a mushers' revolt against the board of directors, a downsized purse, the stain of four dead dogs from last year's race – turns glorious Saturday when sled dogs become show dogs for the ceremonial start of the annual race across Alaska.

A field of 67 mushers, about a thousand barking, tail-wagging dogs and scores of spectators will turn downtown Anchorage into party central.

One by one, teams will leave the start line at 4th Avenue and D Street. They'll travel 11 miles across Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip and then call it quits for the day.

On Sunday, the parade of pooches turns serious when the race begins for real in Willow. Several days and 1,000 miles later, the race will end in Nome.

For mushers and race organizers who have dealt with more off-season turmoil than perhaps ever before, racing will bring a respite.

"Let us do what we do," veteran musher Allen Moore of Two Rivers said. "This race is gonna come through all this stuff."

Take away the turbulence, and the 46th Iditarod has the makings of a good race.

Eight mushers who finished in last year's top 10 are back. Three past champs are entered, including four-time winners Jeff King and Martin Buser and defending champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling, who made the fastest run to Nome in race history last year.

And there is an abundance of snow, something that will put Iditarod back in the Iditarod.

Iditarod champion John Baker arrives at the Anvik checkpoint on Friday, Mar. 8, 2013. (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2013)

The race is using the southern route for the first time since 2013, taking mushers to the villages of Eagle Island, Grayling, Anvik and Shageluk and to the ghost town of Iditarod.

"I am looking forward to it," said fan-favorite DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, who is making her 35th and final run to Nome. "I knew those villages long before I ever ran Iditarod when I used to work in the fisheries. I still have friends out of Grayling."

The last two times the race was slated to use the traditional southern route, there wasn't enough snow in the Alaska Range so the start was moved to Fairbanks.

Although the southern route produced a speed record by John Baker in 2011, it is consider a challenging trail. It doesn't get much traffic and the snow is reportedly deep this year. And it requires more climbing than the traditional northern route or the route out of Fairbanks.

"A lot of hills," Moore said. "I like hills."

All 14 dogs that made it the finish line in Whitehorse with Moore will be at the start line in Willow, although most of them will be in harness for Moore's wife, Iditarod top-10 regular Aliy Zirkle.

"Aliy's got 13 of them and I got one," Moore said.

Moore and Zirkle have been running Moore's Quest-prepped dogs in the Iditarod for the last several years, a practice pioneered by four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, who in two consecutive years won both races.

"We started doing it in 2012, and we've had three second-place (Iditarod) finishes after the Quest, so it definitely works," Moore said. "(The dogs are) all eating well, they're all muscled up, they're not going to be hyper. They're ready."

Seavey, who set the race record last year by making it to Nome in 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, also has a trail-tested team. A dozen of the dogs who shared in his victory a year ago are back, including lead dogs Pilot and Crisp.

"My dogs are awesome," he said. "I think it's hard to say they're better than last year, but they're sure as good."

Seavey, 58, is the oldest musher to win the Iditarod. Among those he beat last year was his son, four-time champion Dallas Seavey, who is skipping this year's race.

The younger Seavey got sideways with race organizers after some of his dogs tested positive for a banned substance, Tramadol. Seavey denies giving drugs to his dogs and enlisted a lawyer and PR firm to help make his case, which includes charges that the Iditarod's testing procedures were flawed.

The handling of the doping situation led members of the Iditarod Finishers Club – a group of race veterans – to call for the resignation of board chairman Andy Baker, the brother of John Baker. Among the club's complaints are board members with conflicts of interest – a number of them are either racers or related to racers.

Baker didn't resign, but the heat is on race organizers.

They had to slash the purse by 33 percent, from $750,000 to about $500,000, after the loss of longtime sponsor Wells Fargo.

Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley blamed Wells Fargo's departure on animal-rights activists, who will be front and center at Saturday's ceremonial start and Sunday's restart.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will create a faux cemetery at the start line, according to a press release headlined "Dog funeral to haunt Iditarod's start." Headstones will represent the dogs that died in last year's race.

It's the first time PETA will protest at the race, according to Tricia Lebkuecher, a PETA campaigner.

"It's a really important time, we feel, to speak out against the cruel and deadly race that is the Iditarod," she said.

Mushers counter that Iditarod dogs are bred to run and love to run.

"These phenomenal dogs do phenomenal things," Moore said.

ADN reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.