Iditarod officially underway as mushers leave Willow

Mushers and their sled dogs took off from Willow on Sunday afternoon, kicking off the start of competition in the 52nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Anna Berington was the first musher down the chute, departing from the starting line at the edge of Willow Lake under overcast skies.

This year’s race field consists of 38 mushers, including three past champions and 16 rookies. Overall, that’s slightly up from last year, which, at just 33 mushers, was the smallest field in the event’s history. Twenty-seven of this year’s competitors are men, and 11 are women. They hail from a total of five countries and seven U.S. states. Overwhelmingly, though, most live in Alaska.

“I’m thrilled we don’t have 96 teams,” race director Mark Nordman said during a presentation to media earlier in the week, referring to the race’s 2008 high-water mark for competitors. “That was too much.”

For several years the event has contended with a barrage of challenges, including a loss of major sponsors, pressure from aggressive animal rights groups, the COVID-19 pandemic and internal scandals that have soured relationships in the insular world of competitive mushing. Heading into the 2024 race, the unusual disqualification of two mushers — former champion Brent Sass, along with last year’s rookie of the year, Eddie Burke Jr. — following allegations of violence against women brought further scrutiny to the Iditarod’s operations.

Last year’s champion, Ryan Redington of Knik, is running. As are 2019 winner Pete Kaiser of Bethel and five-time champion Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna. Should Seavey arrive first into Nome, he’d become the only musher to win the race six times. Several other top teams are competing as well, making the race’s upper ranks as competitive as ever.

In even-numbered years like this one, the race follows its northern route. That means competitors leaving the Ophir checkpoint in the race’s middle section will head north to the midpoint at Cripple before reaching the communities of Ruby, Galena and Nulato on the Yukon River, instead of following a southern route through the ghost town of Iditarod and on to the Lower Yukon communities of Shageluk, Anvik, and Grayling.


According to Nordman, conditions along most of the trail are excellent, with plenty of deep snow on both sides of Rainy Pass, where mushers cross the Alaska Range. He noted that trail crews didn’t have to build any ice bridges over open water crossings in the notoriously difficult area around the Dalzell Gorge as the trail heads over the Tatina River toward the Rohn checkpoint, 188 miles into the course.

Not far from there, however, is a 30-mile stretch around Egypt Mountain in the Farewell Burn where there is “no snow,” Nordman said. Even in relatively good snow years, that leg of the race is known to beat up mushers and their sleds, and barring any unexpected snow accumulation in the coming days, teams are likely to face a rough slog before reaching the community of Nikolai, where trail conditions improve.

[Photos: The dogs, mushers and fun-loving fans at the Iditarod ceremonial start]

To veteran Iditarod racers, marginal conditions in the Burn are to be expected.

“The Burn’s always bare and you kinda always expect it to be rough in there. Kinda the normal thing. It’ll be a little annoying for a few hours and then it’ll be over. I think anyone that’s done more than a few of these races has experienced a dirty Burn,” Kaiser said. “It’s kind of a nuisance, but 20 or 30 miles and it’s over.”

Kaiser is coming into this year’s race after his eighth victory in the highly competitive Kuskokwim 300 race in January. He said his team of sled dogs is in its prime, full of 3- and 4-year-olds that have already been down the trail in last year’s Iditarod, where Kaiser placed second.

The goal is to win,” Kaiser said at Saturday’s ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. “Every year you kinda wanna win, but the reality is sometimes the teams aren’t the right age or experience level to realistically win. But I think this team for sure is capable of winning, and that’s gonna be our mindset.”

Defending champion Redington is also entering this year’s race with big ambitions.

“I’d like to be top three. I’d really love to defend, but top three in the race, have a good showing, prove the dogs,” Redington said.

Northern Wisconsin, where Redington keeps his kennel, had a poor early winter, and he relocated to Knik. He’s running many of the same dogs that pulled him to victory last year but has put considerably more race miles on them this year running in local contests.

Most of the race’s trail through the old Iditarod mining district, along the Yukon, and over the Kaltag portage to the Norton Sound coast is in good shape, according to Nordman.

“We did lose a lot of sea ice around Elim,” he said.

Officials will wait until later in the race when mushers get closer to the coast to determine where the trail will cross sections of sea ice or deviate inland.

[Prerace jitters, thinking like a dog and more cowbell: Iditarod kickoff begins with mushers touring Anchorage]

This year, the Iditarod increased the number of dogs mushers can start with, upping it from 14 to 16, reversing a modification that went into effect in the 2019 race.

“It’s more expensive,” veteran musher Nicolas Petit of Big Lake joked about the change.

Mushers don’t have to use all 16 spots when they set off, but they must begin the race with a minimum of 12 dogs on the line.


“Some mushers think it’s easier to field a 16-dog team because you just take all the question marks instead of having to decide which question marks do you take,” Petit said.

Many racers struggle to finalize which dogs they’ll take up until the last minute — including, on Saturday morning, Mille Porsild, who has finished as high as fifth place in her four prior Iditarods.

“I have 21 dogs right now that I’m choosing 16 from, and I’m having a really tough time,” the Danish musher said. “I feel incredibly fortunate. And a big part of it is, I can’t bring myself to (leave some of them behind) and I think, ‘But you deserve to go.’ It’s so hard to get to this spot.”

More dogs, though, means more animals to care for: feed, bootie, water, massage, and the myriad minor chores that consume mushers’ time off the runners during rests in checkpoints or the middle of the wilderness for breaks.

“I preferred 14,” Two Rivers musher Matt Hall said Saturday.

Hall finished in fourth place last year, and spoke of his goals in terms of a speedier finish rather than a jump in the leader board, hoping to get to Nome in under nine days. At the ceremonial start, he had yet to figure out how many dogs he’d be setting off from Willow with.

“It’s hard to get that many dogs. It’s a lot of dogs,” Hall said. (Ultimately, he charged down the starting chute in Willow on Sunday afternoon with 16 dogs on the line.)

One former champion who isn’t taking off for Nome this year is 2022 Iditarod winner Sass, who was disqualified in February following allegations that he sexually assaulted multiple women. Sass has denied the accusations and hasn’t been charged with a crime. Another musher, Burke, pulled out of this year’s race after the Iditarod disqualified then reinstated him, once assault charges he had been facing were dismissed by state prosecutors. In both cases, Iditarod officials cited violations of the race’s personal conduct policy as the reason for their disqualification.


On Wednesday, race officials declined to comment on specific details involved in the decision to oust Sass, with Nordman saying the message from the race’s board of directors was clear.

“We’ve had some tough times. We’re beyond that. We’re gonna have a hell of a race,” he said.

After traversing a total of 975 miles, a winner is expected to arrive in Nome sometime between Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

[‘On my bucket list’: Why this musher is returning to the Iditarod 23 years after his last finish]

Zachariah Hughes

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

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.