At the registration deadline this past week, Alaska’s most storied sports spectacle has drawn its smallest field in 50 years. Thirty-four mushers have signed up to run the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, matching the number of starting teams in 1973, the race’s first year.
Things could change in the months before the race begins on March 4. Sign-up is possible after Dec. 1, but the fee jumps from $4,000 to $8,000. There’s also a chance that entered mushers could drop out.
For now, racers missing from the field include mushing legends and perennial competitors. That’s noteworthy in a sport whose fans have grown accustomed to an annual parade of familiar faces and long-standing favorites.
Jeff King, Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Martin Buser have accounted for 17 Iditarod championships. All of them raced in 2022 and none signed up for 2023. Peter Kaiser and Brent Sass are the only past winners on the 2023 race roster.
Add to the noticeably-absent list 2021 runner-up Aaron Burmeister and three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle — longtime regulars who stepped away from Iditarod in recent years. Lance Mackey, a four-time winner and fan favorite, who last participated in 2020, died in September.
Mushers have reported a range of reasons for sitting out Alaska’s most famous sporting tradition. Some storied careers are winding down. Others are on temporary hiatus from the race. Economic obstacles confront kennels large and small.
“Mushing’s always been expensive, but it’s never been as expensive as it is now,” said King, a four-time champ. “And I don’t know of any mushers with the kind of sponsorships we used to be able to drum up in the ’90s.”
Over the last decade, the Iditarod has averaged 64 mushers at its start. In 2016, 85 mushers attempted the run to Nome. Iditarod officials were unavailable for comment, said Shannon Noonan, Iditarod marketing and communications manager. Noonan said CEO Rob Urbach plans to host a meeting in December to address the current field size and provide an overview of the 2023 race.
Some mushers expressed hope that the dip in participation is temporary. Others express worry.
“Everybody should be concerned,” said Burmeister. “The race itself is a race that it’s not just about the mushers. It’s about Alaska. It’s about the state. It’s about all the communities we travel through.”
A money issue
Many mushers indicated costs have become a major hurdle. While dog mushing has long been a labor of love with little financial incentive, recent increases in the price of dog food and fuel have become difficult to absorb.
“It’s a sport where I don’t think a lot of people are really looking to get rich,” said Peter Kaiser, the 2019 champ. “They just are looking to be able to afford it for the next year. And it’s getting tougher to do that for some people.”
Brenda Mackey, niece of mushing legend Lance Mackey, was a rookie last year. Her husband, Will Rhodes had initially planned to make his debut in 2023. Due to family concerns, they decided not to sign up prior to the deadline.
Mackey said they spend $75,000 annually for kennel basics: food, veterinary expenses, booties, straw, and supplies. She said top-quality kibble that once went for $30 a bag is $65-$85 a bag now.
“To put that into greater perspective, we have 50 dogs and feed a bag of kibble every day,” she said.
Talkeetna musher Anja Radano, a two-time finisher, said higher gas prices make it harder to travel with her team to train and race. The $4,000 entry fee for the Iditarod is significant, but both Mackey and Radano said it’s a drop in the bucket compared to total operating costs.
“It just comes down to a money issue and personally I just can’t afford it so I’m not running it this year,” Radano said.
More experienced mushers are feeling the pinch as well. Paige Drobny, who has eight finishes in the race, and her partner Cody Strathe, who has four finishes, are both taking the year off to launch their Susitna Lodge business on the Denali Highway.
Together, they train about 30 dogs for racing, and both plan to compete in the Copper Basin 300, Strathe said. Drobny is also signed up also for the Kuskokwim 300, and Strathe will race the Yukon Quest 550.
Strathe said their 45-dog kennel goes through about 5 to 6 pallets of dog food a year. The price of each pallet has gone up $700 just this year, he said. Money has never been a motivator for them, he said, but prize winnings don’t cover costs.
“I don’t see us being done with Iditarod at all,” Strathe said. “And hopefully the 1,000-mile Quest will come back and we can run them both again. But at this point, we’re definitely needing our business to make money.”
Even a mushing champion can find it hard to make ends meet. Thomas Waerner, who won the 2020 Iditarod, has an added layer of travel concerns; he lives and trains in Torpa, Norway.
“I will be back 2024, saving up money this season,” Waerner wrote on Facebook. “This year things are too expensive and not easy to get sponsors with all that is going on in the world. Looking forward to see(ing) the trail and all the people again.”
Big names are backing off
Jeff King, a 28-time Iditarod finisher and 4-time winner, is one of several past champions who raced in 2022 who chose not to enter the 2023 race. But seeing the relatively small roster of entrants made King pause to consider it.
“I don’t know for sure why some of the traditional field is not there, but I feel like running the race with under 30 teams sounds like a frickin’ blast,” King said. “It makes me want to sign up.”
More mushers doesn’t necessarily equate to a better Iditarod experience on the trail, King said. But the 1,000-mile race presents mounting physical and motivational challenges for the 66-year-old musher with each passing year, he said.
“It is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of body, and my mind’s gone soft and my body’s getting old,” King said with a laugh in late November.
“I didn’t get out of bed ‘til 9 o’clock this morning. I want a race that has a 24-hour break every other day,” he said.
King said his love of mushing remains strong and he intends to remain active. He signed up for the Copper Basin 300 in January and plans to drive 1,800-plus miles to Canada’s Northwest Territories for a race in March. Though he hasn’t ruled out a return to Iditarod, he said he enjoys using his expertise and resources to mentor younger mushers.
“Time to build another crop of lifers,” he said.
Big Lake-based Martin Buser, owner of one of the most impressive accomplishments in Alaska sports history, has also decided it’s time to step away. Buser started and finished 37 consecutive Iditarods, a run that ended in March. Put another way, the last Iditarod the cheerful and recognizable Buser didn’t sign up for was in 1985.
“It’s retirement from Iditarod,” he said. “It’s not retirement from the dogs or the sport or the love of the sled dogs.”
Sitting it out feels odd, Buser said.
“People are creatures of habit, just like animals,” Buser said. “If you have done something for a long, long, long time — multi-decades — it takes a bit of getting used to doing a different program.”
Buser said the Iditarod race organization has struggled to find the “golden combination” to improve its recognition and finances. He thinks social media could be better utilized to highlight the mushers and dogs.
“We’re often saying ‘Gone are the days where we all had nicknames, when everybody knew the Shishmaref Cannonball or the Yukon River Fox,” he said, referring to Herbie Nayokpuk and Emmitt Peters Sr.
There’s no single place to point the blame for current low participation, he said.
“I hope it’s just a lull in the evolution of Iditarod, and I wouldn’t blame one particular factor, like global warming or the cost of fuel or the cost of dog food,” he said. “All that stuff, of course, contributes.”
Burmeister, who announced last year he would pause his mushing career in part to spend more time with his family, said the “aging out” of big-name racers could have a trickle-down effect. Young mushers often gain knowledge, and dogs, from the most established “feeder” kennels.
“When those mushers get out on their own, they’re coming from a program that’s been going on for many years, and they’ve gained that experience, that know-how to raise them and train them properly,” he said.
Buser said the allure of dog mushing, with its thousands of years of documented history, will ultimately survive.
“You’re not just going to wipe that out in a couple years of downturn,” Buser said. “People of the north, they’re connected to their huskies, one way or another.”
Back on the runners
Veteran musher Anna Berington has noticed a change in Iditarod’s competitive atmosphere since her first race in 2012.
“Not to sound like an old sourdough, but back when I first started, there was 70, 80 teams in it,” Anna said. “If you said you finished in the top 20, that was like, wow, you’re really kicking some butt. Now you say you finished in the top 20, it’s like, ‘You beat 10 teams. Good job.’”
Twelve-time finisher Kristy Berington, Anna’s twin sister, kennel partner and race companion, said the diminished field might be evidence of a broader societal change. Young people seem more willing to watch life unfold through social media than to seek adventure themselves.
“If you look at it on a large scale, I just think that humanity is constantly looking to be more comfortable, to make things easier,” she said. “And dog mushing isn’t easy. It’s difficult.”
On a recent afternoon at their kennel in Knik, the Beringtons clipped their teams to a gangline for a 40-mile training run. Both signed up for Iditarod on the day registration opened in June.
Anna said finishing Iditarod remains a great accomplishment, but she’d be a musher regardless of the chance to race Iditarod, because of her love of the dogs and the time she spends with her sister.
“It’s hard work being a musher,” said Anna Berington. “It’s long hours. It doesn’t pay anything. You do it because you love it.”
Though the 2023 field is small, the capabilities at the race’s top end is hardly weak. In addition to the two past champs, racers signed up include Nicolas Petit, Wade Marrs, Mille Porsild, Jessie Holmes, Aaron Peck, Ryan Redington, Richie Diehl, Matt Hall and Travis Beals — all of whom have previously placed in the Iditarod’s top ten in more crowded fields.
The level of competition jumped up even more in the waning days of the registration period.
Jessie Royer added her name to the mix just days before the deadline. Royer is the most experienced musher currently signed up. She has 19 Iditarod finishes, dating back to 2001, and has finished in the top-ten 8 times. She has placed third twice.
Bethel’s Peter Kaiser had been weighing taking a year off from Iditarod after 12 consecutive years. But since he’s training for the Kuskokwim 300, a race he has won six times, he decided to also enter the Iditarod on the final day of signups.
“I feel like if I’m going to take a year off, I have to be completely off,” he said.
Kaiser said the Iditarod experience is weirdly addicting. Running it can be miserable in the moment, but thoughts about it change as the months go by afterward.
“It’s just one of those things that kind of sucks you in every year, and 12 months is just long enough to forget about some of the more challenging things that go on during the race.”
He said he remains upbeat about the event’s future. Participation in shorter races suggests interest in the sport is healthy despite Iditarod’s low number. That could very well tick upward next year, he said.
“Will we ever be back to 80 teams like it was at one point? I’m not sure,” Kaiser said. “But I’m optimistic that we can maintain a level of teams that keeps the race relevant.”