by MARK THIESSEN at apnews.com
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The second half-century for the world’s most famous sled dog race is getting off to a rough start.
Only 33 mushers will participate in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, the smallest field ever to take their dog teams nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) over Alaska’s unforgiving wilderness. This year’s lineup is smaller even than that of the 34 mushers who lined up for the very first race in 1973.
The small pool of mushers is raising concerns about the future of an iconic race that has taken hits from the pandemic, climate change, inflation and the loss of deep-pocketed sponsors, just as multiple big-name mushing champions are retiring with few to take their place.
The largest field ever was 96 mushers in 2008; the average number of mushers starting the race over the last 50 years was 63.
“It’s a little scary when you look at it that way,” said four-time winner Martin Buser, 64, who retired after completing his 39th race last year. “Hopefully it’s not a state of the event and … it’s just a temporary lull.”
The Iditarod is the most prestigious sled dog race in the world, taking competitors over two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and treacherous Bering Sea ice in frigid temperatures before ending in the old Gold Rush town of Nome. The roughly 10-day event begins with a “ceremonial start” in Anchorage on Saturday, followed by the competitive start in Willow, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) to the north, on Sunday.
And while the world-renowned race has the highest winner’s purse of any sled dog competition, the winner only pockets about $50,000 before taxes — a payout that is less appealing amid inflation and the continued reverberations of the pandemic.
Many mushers supplement their income by offering uniquely Alaska experiences to cruise ship passengers, but for several years the pandemic has meant fewer summer visitors to shell out money for a sled dog ride on a glacier.
“There’s a lot of kennels and a lot of mushers that rely on that to keep going,” said Aaron Burmeister, a Nome native who is sitting out this year’s race to spend more time with family. Burmeister, who works construction, has had eight top 10 finishes in the last decade.
“Being able to race the Iditarod and the expense of putting together a race team became more than they could bear to maintain themselves,” he said of mushers.
Inflation has also taken a toll, and several mushers said they’d like to see a higher prize purse to attract younger competitors.
Defending champion Brent Sass, who supplements his income as a wilderness guide, isn’t surprised some mushers are taking a break to build up bank accounts.read more