After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic playing a prominent role, this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will look mostly normal. While there are plenty of public health precautions in place, for most fans, the event will hew to familiar contours as 49 mushers traverse the northern route to Nome. Though the 50th anniversary of the first Iditarod run in 1973 won’t be until next year, this is technically the 50th running of the race, so there are some special commemorations planned.
The Iditarod’s governing body implemented measures to reduce the spread of the virus in 2020, 2021 and this year. The race requires all participants — from mushers to veterinarians to volunteers — be fully vaccinated.
Last year, for the first time in the race’s history, mushers did not run to Nome, rerouting instead along an out-and-back trail that looped around the historic Iditarod mining district and terminated back on the road system at Deshka Landing.
Though there has been a slight rankling against the vaccination requirement, most of the mushers who initially signed up for this year’s race are still on track to compete.
Unlike in 2021, this year’s Iditarod will start on the streets of downtown Anchorage on Saturday, March 5, with a ceremonial send-off as mushers parade through a loop that starts on Fourth Avenue. For casual spectators, the event will be similar to its pre-pandemic format, with teams lined out on side streets before heading out every few minutes starting at 10 a.m. The areas where mushers and their dogs stage before departing, however, will be completely closed to the public and anyone not inside the “Iditarod bubble.”
For committed Iditarod super-fans, one major disappointment is that racers will not be present for the Anchorage Mushers Banquet days before the race, in an effort to limit their exposure to potential infection.
The IditaRider auction, however, where people bid on the chance to ride in the sleds of competitors through the trails of Anchorage, did take place. IditaRiders are required to be fully vaccinated.
The race’s restart in Willow on Sunday, March 6, is proceeding normally, with teams staging on Willow Lake in a cordoned-off area before departing in intervals starting at 2 p.m.
Some checkpoints are modifying operations this year, or declining to participate in the race.
Takotna, which is a popular spot for mushers to take their 24-hour mandatory rests, will not serve as a checkpoint this year. Instead, mushers will go from McGrath to Ophir.
The Yukon River community of Galena is not allowing anyone but Iditarod personnel to enter its checkpoint at the local community hall. Nikolai, at the headwaters of the Kuskokwim River, is restricting access to the school, which typically functions as a hub for mushers and out-of-town visitors. And the small town of White Mountain, where mushers are required to take an eight-hour rest before departing for Nome, is providing a heated tent on the Fish River ice in lieu of using a local building.
All rural community checkpoints along the route will be operating with some degree of COVID-19 mitigation measures, according to race organizers.
In 2020, as the virus was spreading across the globe, the race was thrown into disarray. Many mushers, isolated in the wilderness, were not aware that the world was shutting down as they slogged through a thousand-mile race, occasionally getting updates at remote checkpoints about the cratering stock market, shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on international travel. Several communities along the route closed down or limited interactions with the race to curb the risk of exposure. Volunteers in Shaktoolik built a whole new checkpoint outside the community from a hastily rehabilitated house to accommodate mushers but keep them at a distance from vulnerable residents.
Nome, the race’s finishing point, asked travelers to stay away in 2020, and last year was not part of the race at all. This year, it is welcoming guests back.
The Iditarod keeps losing major sponsors, even as alternative patrons step in to try filling the gap.
For years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has aggressively pushed corporate sponsors to drop their support of the iconic sled dog race, arguing that it’s fundamentally cruel to make dogs run for nearly a thousand miles in winter conditions. Most recently, Millennium Hotels and Resort, which owns the Lake Front Hotel in Anchorage, announced it will no longer serve as a headquarters for race operations. The Lake Front’s manager said the change was due to economics, not PETA’s campaign, with the ongoing pandemic severely impacting Alaska’s hospitality industry.
Some of the other major sponsors who have pulled away in recent years are energy companies whose Alaska portfolios have shrunk during a protracted stretch of low oil prices.
At least one prominent musher, Wade Marrs, cited the race’s vaccination policy as a reason for not competing in this year’s race. A small number of other established mushers have either withdrawn or did not sign up to compete.
2022 Iditarod mushers, start list
List provided by Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.