The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has hit a crossroads.
Friends are worried. Enemies circling.
The premiere sporting event in Alaska endured a disastrous 2017, with the death of four sled dogs and a drug-testing scandal involving the team of star musher Dallas Seavey. The four-time champion, in turn, continues to publicly feud with the Iditarod board of directors. A coalition of other racers have called for some of those directors to resign, pronto.
Rough trail indeed. Yet now, perhaps more than ever, mushers and organizers are ready to talk about big changes to the Last Great Race. Rethinking how it is run and who runs it.
We recently asked current and former competitors to share their ideas for how they might fix the Iditarod.
The question assumes the race should continue. Critics like "Sled Dogs" director Fern Levitt believe it should not – that long-distance dog races for prize money are inherently inhumane. ("Could the circus be fixed? No, because it's animal cruelty," she said.)
But many in the sport see a path forward for this archetypal Alaskan event that racers, sponsors and fans can feel good about.
"It's an evolution," said four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. "The Iditarod has already demonstrated over the years the ability to change and I think this is a great time to evaluate how it could become better than it already is."
As the 46th annual running of the Iditarod begins, here are ideas for bettering the race from those who know it best.
1. When a dog dies, the musher and team are disqualified.
King wants a new rule: If a dog dies, that musher and the sled dog team go home.
"If you're not willing to take responsibility for the life of the dog, I don't think you belong out there," King said. "You raise the bar and we will perform."
King said dogs competing in the Iditarod are in better health and under better veterinary care than ever before. But every so often deaths occur. After a streak of several years without a fatality on the trail, eight huskies have died since 2013.
"It's devastating and it's horrible and in my opinion, the musher and their team should pack up and go home and try again next year," said King, who has a zero-tolerance policy for dog deaths in his own race, the Denali Doubles.
It's been tried by the Iditarod before.
The race enacted a rule in 1996 that required a musher be withdrawn in the event of a dog death. The rule was immediately put to the test when a dog named Ariel on the team of five-time champion Rick Swenson, now an Iditarod board member, became tangled in overflow and died between Yentna and Skwentna.
An appeals board ruled that the death was not the fault of the musher. Swenson – who had never before lost a dog in 20 Iditarods – threatened to sue the trail committee, according to news reports at the time. Race officials rewrote the automatic disqualification rule.
Had a zero-tolerance policy been in place in 2016, King himself might have been kicked out of the race for a death that was not his fault. That year, a drunk snowmachiner crashed into his team on the frozen Yukon River, killing 3-year-old Nash.
"I would have gladly sat that race out," King said. "The rest of the dogs would not have cared."
2. Fewer dogs per team.
Sixteen dogs per team is too many, said Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey, the only racer to win four Iditarods in a row.
"If I had to change one thing, I would make it more old-school," Mackey said. "You're allowed one sled, start to finish. You're allowed maybe a 12-dog pool and you're only allowed to drop three dogs."
It may seem counter-intuitive to reduce the number of huskies on a team in the interest of dog safety. But some mushers say shrinking team size could have multiple benefits.
"People would be forced to change their racing style. You have 16 dogs, you can be a little bit careless," Mackey said. He suggests requiring not only smaller teams at the starting line but larger teams at the finish.
Current rules allow racers to reach Nome with as few as five dogs, leaving dropped dogs with race volunteers at checkpoints along the way. If teams had to keep more dogs in harness for the entire 1,000-mile trail, Mackey said, it might mean more time resting.
"You would be forced to take better care of your dogs instead of sending them home so easily," he said.
King, Mackey's one-time rival, agrees with reducing the size of starting lineups. Perhaps to 14 dogs. When he competed in his first Iditarod in 1981, he said, the race had no limits to how many dogs mushers could bring. Eventually, 16, he said, "was a number pulled out of thin air."
King contends that a 16-dog team is too powerful today, especially given the trails that are better maintained and groomed than decades ago. Fairbanks racer Jodi Bailey said smaller team sizes could, in theory, open the race up to smaller kennels and allow veterinarians more time with the remaining dogs.
And perhaps, mushers said, fewer dogs would lead to fewer deaths.
"As rare as a fatality is in a modern Iditarod … that number will drop exponentially because many of these fatalities occur because of lack of control and power," King said.
3. End conflicts of interest.
The usual squabbles within the competitive mushing world have escalated into an ongoing war between Dallas Seavey, the 31-year-old musher who many see as the future of the sport, and the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors that governs the nonprofit race organization.
Seavey hired a former district attorney in an effort to clear his name after four of his dogs tested positive for Tramadol, a prescription painkiller the race prohibits. Seavey denies giving his team the drug and has said officials for the Iditarod nonprofit badly mishandled the whole affair.
The turmoil is fuel for PETA, which added "doping scandals" to its list of complaints about the race.
In December, a consultant hired by worried Iditarod sponsors also sounded an alarm.
In a 9-page report, The Foraker Group concluded that sponsors and mushers alike appeared to be "on the verge of withdrawing their support for this race as a result of their distrust for this board."
The Iditarod Official Finishers Club, which calls itself the players union for racers, called on board president Andy Baker to resign in February.
Baker is the brother of 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker, and several others on the board are current or former mushers or family members of mushers. The consultant hired by sponsors said it might be necessary for six of the nine directors with apparent conflicts of interest to step down.
"If I'm going to be a racer then I should not be anywhere near the board," Dallas Seavey said in a recent phone interview. "I would love to see a group of professional experts on our board that know how to market the Iditarod, know how to brand the Iditarod.
"(Who) know how to bring it to a new audience that is excited to learn about the connection between mushers and their dogs — that's a connection I think a lot of people can relate to," he said.
Seavey is skipping this year's Iditarod in protest and Mackey warned that others may follow. Wells Fargo, a long-time major sponsor, pulled its support for the Iditarod in 2017 and this year's prize winnings are down by a third.
"I don't believe the Iditarod is going to go away completely," Mackey said. "But I believe at this very moment there are a lot of people, sponsors, fans, competitors, etc. that don't want anything to do with it."
4. Rethinking rest, checkpoint requirements.
Iditarod racers must take several mandatory breaks during the race: A 24-hour layover somewhere on the trail. An eight-hour rest on the Yukon River and another in the checkpoint of White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.
King said he would support the race requiring an additional eight-hour rest on the Bering Sea coast, and maybe more than that. "Put one south of the Range, north of the Range, I don't know. Put another 24-hour break in it. I'd be all for it."
While mushers should be expected to rest the correct amount, a rule change would ensure they do, he said. Race observers have proposed slowing the Iditarod by requiring mushers to spend as much time resting the dogs as running them.
"Four words: Equal run/equal rest," longtime Iditarod journalist Craig Medred recently suggested.
Mushers warn that any rule change, particularly new checkpoint layovers, can have unintended consequences that aren't necessarily good for their dogs.
"The more mandatory rests you require, the harder people race in between," said Jessie Royer, who has finished in the top 10 six times.
Speed is not necessarily the problem, she said. "You can't argue with Mitch Seavey getting to Nome in eight days. His team looks great doing it, so what's wrong with that?"
Mackey suggests requiring every team to pause for at least 15 minutes at a checkpoint to allow veterinarians time to look at each dog. Danny Seavey, Dallas's brother and a three-time Iditarod finisher, said the race could explore ways to let the dogs themselves signal if they are not ready to run.
If a dog team does not immediately leave a checkpoint at the musher's command, he said, perhaps the musher should not be allowed to lead them out of the checkpoint. If a race judge determined the dogs had refused to run, the team would instead be required to wait another four hours before trying again.
Asked for her suggestions for rule changes, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle said she needed time to think and worried about swapping rules without making sure the tweaks are best for all dogs.
"It's got to be a dog-friendly sport," she said.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey called any potential changes to the structure of the race "window dressing." What needs to change is the race's leadership and an overall pivot toward long-term planing, he said.
"The leadership needs to have a different skill set and a different focus," he said. "They need to focus on public outreach. They need to focus on funding. They need to know what branding is."
5. Alternatives to tethering.
Other mushers talked about a current flashpoint for mushing culture criticism, the tethering of dogs to houses in dog yards. Pictures of dogs on chains can paint a disturbing image on social media but some mushers say the longstanding practice is more humane and allows more one-on-one interaction with dogs than pens or kennels. It also prevents unwanted pregnancies and dog fights, they say.
"We're fighting the optics that this looks bad," Danny Seavey said. "And I agree, when you look at a dog lot, especially on a rainy day, it looks terrible. But that doesn't mean its inhumane."
Musher Zoya DeNure, of Delta Junction, recently published an outline for "best care" practices at kennels.
"If tethering is done right with a minimum 6.5-foot chain and dogs can play and interact, (it is) far superior to a wire kennel," said DeNure, who compared kennels to prison cells.
Danny Seavey said his father has given him a "blank check" to redesign the family's championship kennel, which could involve housing the dogs in barn-like buildings.
"We're going to hopefully be at the forefront of what is a better way to house dogs," he said.
Iditarod organizers announced plans in December to create dog care standards for future races and officials said the matter of conflicts of interest on the board of directors will likely be addressed in the spring.
None of the ideas are a silver bullet and all have their supporters and detractors. Still, Fairbanks musher Jodi Bailey, a six-time finisher, said competitors are game for the debate.
"There's the false idea that we're just trying to circle the wagons, hide and protect and I don't think that's true," Bailey said. "There's a lot of conversations going on in a lot of different areas about the best way to move forward."