For an Iditarod ‘re-rookie,’ delivering food bags means progress toward a goal

The start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow is weeks away, and the finish line in Nome is a thousand miles beyond. But rookie musher Gabe Dunham said she has already made strides toward reaching her goal.

Dunham and several other 2024 Iditarod racers delivered their food drop bags to race organizers in Anchorage on Wednesday.

“This is huge,” she said.

The drop bags, which contain food for both the dogs and the mushers, were sorted and palletized for transport to race checkpoints at Air Land Transport’s facility in South Anchorage. Preparing drop bags can be a stressful process, Dunham said, because it’s crucial. She began making her own checklists in June.

“It’s really significant that this happens, and that it’s correct,” she said.

Forty mushers are expected to start the Iditarod, which kicks off with a ceremonial run in Anchorage on March 2. Dunham, 38, calls herself a race “re-rookie.” Her only other Iditarod attempt, in 2020, ended in Unalakleet after more than nine days on the trail because her dogs got sick, she said.

“We had to go home,” she said. “We were so close, but yet not there.”


Scratching from the race was an easy call, she said, considering her dogs’ health. But deciding to race again required overcoming her own bruising disappointment from that experience. That season, things had been going great for her on the Iditarod trail and in prior races.

“To have that kind of end, it was just a real blow to, I guess, the ego ...,” she said. “It took me a little bit to kind of digest that.”

Once home, Dunham said it helped to read a book about mountaineers on Mount Everest, many of whom were forced to turn around very close to reaching the summit due to circumstances beyond their control. Though her takeaway was to appreciate the journey, her hunger remained to reach Nome.

“I am a completionist,” she said. “Once I gathered my thoughts … I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do it again.’ I love this race.”

For rookies and veterans alike, making an Iditarod attempt is a big investment. Dunham, who was born and raised in Fairbanks, said feeding her 30-dog kennel in Willow can be a $2,000-per-month expense. And that figure doesn’t include race-related costs.

“I’m going to ballpark it. You’re sitting probably about $20,000. And that’s probably on the lower end, because I already own a lot of things ...,” she said. “So that’s why it has taken a couple years.”

On Wednesday, Dunham delivered her food bags to a couple dozen Iditarod volunteers at Air Land. There, the bags were weighed and sorted by destination. Food drop coordinator Jennifer Ambrose said most will be shipped by bypass mail. Last week, straw was shipped to checkpoints, she said. Supplies for race volunteers will be shipped soon. “We have a lot of returning volunteers who just love to do this and keep coming back,” she said.

Dunham was jokingly booed by a few when one of her bags weighed in at slightly over the 50-pound limit. She repacked it on the spot.

Dunham said her strategy this year involves simplicity. She packs her bags nearly identically for each checkpoint, which makes items easier to locate. Her dogs have nutritional options, which include pork belly, beef, chicken, fish and kibble.

“There’s a secondary kibble if they don’t like one flavor or the other,” Dunham said.

“My dogs are spoiled,” she said.

Dunham said supporters prepared the food she will eat, including breakfast burritos and Mexican food. Each meal is squeezed thin and vacuum-packed so it can be dropped in boiling water to heat up. Her drop bags also include some clothing and gear, including extra dog booties, replacement plastic for her sled’s runners, neck gaiters and socks.

“This is a significant load off my shoulders,” she said after her bags were carried away. “I’m going to go home and go take the team out on a nice long run now and not have this worry.”

Though she has a long way to go, she envisions what it will be like to reach Nome. As joyful as that moment may be, it might not be the end.

“I’m hoping that this is the start of many Iditarods,” she said.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at