Why this year’s smallest-ever Iditarod field might not be a bad thing

Iditarod 51 is underway. This year should be a pleasant one for mushers. Thirty-three teams will be on the trail. That may seem like a bad thing for dog racing in general, but for the teams on the trail in 2023, it is good.

Why? Fewer teams means that mushers taking a break on the trail will get better rest without so many disruptions. A fast team that passes a dozen others and then takes a three- or four-hour break will have to pass all of those teams again fairly soon. Not fun. Also, the better resting spots won’t be plugged with teams.

Fewer teams on the trail corresponds to checkpoints that are not crowded. In these new days of electronics, there is always a shortage of charging ports at checkpoints. It may be possible for a dog driver to actually get a bit of rest in checkpoint sleeping areas without being trampled. Teams should begin to spread out fairly early; almost a third of the field are rookie teams. There will be room to dry gear this year with only a few teams at each checkpoint.

Dropped dog care should improve. The Iditarod has always had a perceived issue with dropped dogs. The reality of the situation has always been about numbers. One thousand dogs, give or take, are usually on the trail. When one cuts that number in half, the situation improves dramatically.

I was in Unalakleet a few years ago when more than 200 dogs were dropped there. The weather wasn’t great, with mixed rain and snow. The dogs and quite a few scratched mushers were trying to get back to Anchorage. The Iditarod Trail Committee did a good job, but Unalakleet is a transportation hub. Things aren’t quite as easy in a place like Kaltag that is only serviced by small aircraft.

Veterinarians will be able to become more familiar with individual teams. Vet care, already good, should improve. Once the teams reach the Yukon River they are scattered, with only a few at a time coming into checkpoints. The same vet will be acquainted with particular dogs that may have aroused concern earlier in the race.

The Yukon Quest, which historically had a field in the high 20s and low 30s, hopped the same vets from checkpoint to checkpoint. Mushers saw the same veterinarian many times throughout the race. Vets often knew quite a few dogs by name. Of course, the Iditarod is a far cry from the Yukon Quest. The Iditarod has three times the number of checkpoints, making it necessary to hop-skip race personnel. Still, the same veterinarian will see many of the same animals throughout the event.


[Meet the mushers of the 2023 Iditarod]

[New this year: Many dropped Iditarod dogs will be fitted with satellite trackers after lost sled dog incident]

The Iditarod normally closes the race’s entry window by Dec. 1. This year, in an attempt to garner more competitors, entries were allowed until just recently. That effort was hit-or-miss. A few veterans took advantage of the late entry date. The decent purse, combined with the limited number of teams, will provide a better chance for a payback on expenses.

That isn’t to say that Iditarod-bound kennels will make any money. Consider that a kennel size of 40 dogs, which used to be termed a “small” kennel, probably will cost $28,000 to $35,000 to feed annually. That does not cover gear and vet expenses. The purse payout is based on the number of finishers. There were 37 finishers in 2022. The 20th-place finisher garnered just over $10,000. This season it will be slightly better — but not enough to truly matter. It is not about the money, after all.

The Iditarod and the Yukon Quest are about the lifestyle and the love of dogs, at least for most. Jeff King, Martin Buser and others of their ilk are not racing much, but still keep dogs. Why? Maybe they can’t verbalize it.

Why would someone spend forty grand a year feeding dog mouths and scooping poop? I do wish someone would give me that answer — then I can explain the forty dogs in my yard ...

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist 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.