Iditarod mushers launch their nearly thousand-mile journey to Nome

Amid reflections on the sport’s future and the smallest field of competitors in Iditarod history, some mushers are bullish on their prospects for this year’s race.

The 51st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is officially underway, with 33 teams taking off one at a time from a frozen Willow Lake on Sunday afternoon past a gantlet of cheering, chilly fans.

Over the next two weeks, teams will cross nearly a thousand miles of tundra, sea ice, mountain passes and vast stretches of frozen rivers on their way to Nome. Race veteran Jessie Holmes of Brushkana was the first musher to hit the trail just after 2 p.m. Sunday, his dogs tugging at the gangline and eager to take off.

Iditarod restart

For half a century now, hundreds of volunteers, mushers and officials have fanned across the state each March for the Iditarod, an event loosely commemorating the 1925 Great Race of Mercy, which delivered diphtheria serum to Nome along an iconic route that links distant corners of Alaska.

Mushing “was a mode of transportation, it was a mode of survival. And now it is a competitive adventure,” Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Saturday, standing in a knee-length parki ruffed in dark gray fur by the Iditarod’s ceremonial starting line in downtown Anchorage. “What it represents is so much of Alaska that, it seems, as we get fancier and more technologically inclined, we move away from.”

This year’s field of competitors is the smallest in Iditarod history, one symptom of the substantial obstacles facing competitive mushing: high costs exacerbated by recent inflation, declining public interest, years of economic downturn in Alaska, pressure on corporate sponsorship from aggressive animal rights groups, and management controversies over the last several years within some of the sport’s premier events.’

Iditarod restart

Still, competition at the front of the pack will be as intense as any other year, with two recent champions running and a dozen other regular top-10 finishers nipping at their heels.

Though the nine rookies running represent the smallest number to begin an Iditarod on record, the newcomers constitute nearly a third of the total field. They’ll be in an intensive competition among themselves for the coveted Rookie of the Year award.

Top prospects

Though last year’s Iditarod winner, Brent Sass of Eureka, is back this year with a strong team of veteran dogs, it is very likely this year could see a new champion. Both Sass and 2019 winner Pete Kaiser of Bethel have notched first-place finishes in challenging mid-distance races this season. But so have several others in the field.

Iditarod restart

[Q&A: Defending Iditarod champ Brent Sass on the effect of success, future ambitions and his connection to his dogs]

“When I make a plan, I don’t stick to it, so I just don’t make a plan. And that’s my plan,” said Nicolas Petit of Big Lake, who won this year’s Copper Basin 300. “I can stick to that plan.”

Petit has placed as high as second, in the 2018 Iditarod, but he’s also seen his team grind to a halt late in the race. Many of his seasoned dogs have retired, and this year he’s running some from race veteran Jim Lanier’s kennel along with a leader named Manic that belonged to four-time champion Lance Mackey, who died in September.

“Tiny little guy, but he’s really happy,” Petit said.

Aniak’s Richie Diehl, who finished sixth last year, is going into the race with a strong team.

“There’s 12 veterans in this crew,” Diehl said. Mushers can start the race with up to 14 dogs, and must have at least five in harness when they arrive in Nome.

2023 Iditarod, Iditarod, Iditarod 2023, Richie Diehl

“I hope to be somewhere near the front. It’s a good dog team,” Diehl said. “Everything is based on what I do.”

In odd-numbered years the race follows its southern route, leaving the Ophir checkpoint for the Iditarod Mining District — home to the gold-rush town from which the race takes its name — before winding through the Yukon communities of Shageluk, Anvik and Grayling, then heading up to Kaltag.

The path re-traces most of the historic freight route that connected Territorial Alaskans from the gold fields in Nome and long-abandoned inland mining towns to the ice-free port in Seward. Sections of the trail have been in use much longer, as seasonal trade and migratory routes by Alaska Native communities.

Iditarod southern route map, Willow, Nome

According to race marshal Mark Nordman, this year’s trail is mostly good, with plenty of snow cover along much of the route. Conditions are variable heading through the Rainy Pass saddle crossing the Alaska Range, and dicey on the north side of the mountains heading over moguled stretches toward the town of Nikolai, but nothing that’s raised alarm bells for organizers or mushers.

Iditarod restart

“The southern route’s kinda cool,” said Kelly Maixner, who last ran the race in 2020. “The only time people ever go out to Iditarod is every other year for Iditarod.”

The southern route is a little slower than the northern alternative routed through Galena, in part because the prevailing westerly winds on long stretches blow straight into teams.

Having finished seven Iditarods, Maixner has not yet cracked the top 10, but this year he’s running dogs from the kennel of friend and five-time champion Dallas Seavey, who is sitting out the race. Maixner estimates the dogs have clocked around 3,000 trail miles this season and have been training at a tempo that will make them extremely competitive in this race.


“This team is all hardened race veterans,” Maixner said. “I think I should definitely be in the top 10 with this team.”

Two mushers regularly in the top 10 who both sat out the 2022 race are back this year.

“We’re definitely gonna try to win for sure,” said Wade Marrs, raised in Knik but now living in Wisconsin.

2023 Iditarod, Iditarod, Iditarod 2023, Wade Marrs

Marrs’ best finish is fourth. Mixed in with some 3-year-old dogs that are new to the trail are several veterans that have made the trip before. This year, for the first time in his dozen Iditarod starts, he sent out a second sled to the McGrath checkpoint in case rough stretches climbing up and down the Alaska Range irreparably batter his primary one.

Jessie Royer, who has eight top-10 finishes in her two decades of Iditarod racing, is not anticipating a win.

“It’s a completely new team for me. In the past, I usually have 11 to 12 veterans, only two or three rookies. This year I have one veteran and 13 rookies,” said Royer, who lives in Montana.

She has not gotten to compete much at all during the last two years, with many of the races in the mountain west shut down during the pandemic.

“And then next year maybe have a team to race a bit more,” Royer said.

Iditarod restart

‘The old guard is moving on’

One thing that surprised Royer was that within this year’s small field she is suddenly one of the most experienced Iditaroders competing.

“I don’t know how that happened. How am I the old-timer?” Royer asked with a laugh. “I got to run with some of the greats. Now I’m the old-timer.”

[Meet the mushers of the 2023 Iditarod]

Many of the event’s most familiar faces — perennial top contenders as well as seasoned stalwarts — are not running this year. Several of them were on Fourth Avenue for the ceremonial start Saturday, handling, visiting, looking a good deal more relaxed than they normally do on the first weekend in March.

“It is rather interesting, isn’t it?” said Dan Seavey, who came in third place in the inaugural 1973 Iditarod, and was trying to count how many years there’s not been at least one Seavey competing in the race. Neither his son Mitch, a three-time champion, nor grandson Dallas are running — though the family’s dogs will be on the trail.

“We got three teams in the race,” said Dan Seavey. In addition to Maixner, Australian Christian Turner and South African Gerhardt Thiart are running dogs from Mitch’s kennel.

Iditarod, Ceremonial Start, downtown Anchorage, mushing, mushers

“I’ve been having fun this winter, hanging out with my daughter, training new mushers, training dogs, but not with the pressure of having to go win the Iditarod,” Dallas Seavey said not long after corralling hounds onto a gangline for Maixner’s start, the whole while looking almost as purposeful and focused as he does in competition.

All around were semi-retired giants of the sport seeming to enjoy the day. Aaron Burmeister, another regular contender for first-place who is taking time away from competition, had a smile on his face and relaxed laugh as he helped guide rookie Eddie Burke to the starting line. Mitch Seavey walked beside Mike Williams Sr., whose son is competing this year, the two of them in rapt conversation in the late morning’s warming sunshine. DeeDee Jonrowe seemed to know every other person who walked by. Four-time champion Jeff King ambled down sidewalks saying hello to old rivals and friends. Elsewhere on the avenue Murkowski was trying to find him to say hello.

“The old guard is moving on,” Murkowski said. “But I think what is so important is we do see these younger mushers being inspired.”

She said she was impressed meeting the 15-year-old Junior Iditarod winner, Emily Robinson of Nenana, and thinking of all the years Robinson has ahead of her.

“That’s so important, that we see this vitality within a sport that, quite frankly, is hard. It is expensive. Unglamorous. I mean, you’re picking up dog poop, you’re melting snow for water,” Murkowski said. “It is hard, hard, hard.”

Iditarod Restart

One of her colleagues was on hand at the start, too: Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, whose family in Bethel had a dog team when she was growing up. “And that just meant no vacations,” Peltola said.

“When I think of dog teams, I think of how before contact, dog mushers’ families knew that they needed one fish a day for every dog and they planned accordingly in their harvests,” she went on. “I thought it was really interesting that there were so few mushers this year, and a number of them attributed that to the lack of salmon in the various river systems.”

Even with a smaller-than-normal field, the atmosphere at Saturday’s ceremonial start was as ebullient as any other year, full of anticipatory energy and a dash of chaos as teams shot past surprised spectators.

Saturday’s kickoff was more like a grand parade than the actual race, most of which happens far from anything like a crowd, in the quiet, grinding calm of the nearly thousand-mile trail.

“You can’t tell much about today what’s gonna happen,” said Dan Seavey. “This is show-and-tell time.”

Iditarod restart

After taking off Sunday from Willow, mushers will drive their teams toward the checkpoints of Yentna and Skwentna before beginning their ascent over the Alaska Range on Monday.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.