ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Brent Sass was only miles away from achieving his dream of winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska when vicious 60 mph (96 kph) winds blew in from the sea of Bering, reducing visibility to about 10 feet (3 meters) and forced him off his sled as his dogs crouched in the snow.
“I didn’t voluntarily pull that stop,” laughed Sass, who was approaching his first Iditarod win last year, but had five-time champion Dallas Seavey just a few miles away. “We got thrown off the trail and it took me an hour to gather all my stuff and figure out where I was.”
Sass regrouped and led his team of 11 dogs out of the Bering Sea ice and down the main street of Nome to the iconic Bramble Arch finish line, winning the Iditarod, the world’s most famous sled dog race, on its seventh attempt.
Sass is back to defend his title in the race, which began on Saturday with a fun-filled 18-kilometer (11-mile) ride through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Thousands of people braved temperatures approaching 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.78 degrees Celsius) to line up to cheer on the mushers, who carried lucky auction-winning ‘Iditariders’ on their sleds for the ceremonial departure .
Things get serious on Sunday with the competitive start of the race that will take mushers nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) through Alaska. It begins in Willow, about 113 kilometers north of Anchorage.
Sass was excited to hit the track on Saturday, with 11 of the 14 dogs returning from last year’s championship team. “I think the substitutes…are stronger dogs, so I’m really excited,” he said.
He expects mild temperatures until the mushers reach the west coast, where there has been more fluctuation and predicting trail conditions makes almost no sense as they change so quickly.
“They’ve gone from icy runs to snowy runs and back and forth all season,” he said. “I think we’re going to get what we get.”
It’s the Iditarod’s 51st race, but its 33 mushers are the smallest field ever to start the race. Mushers and race organizers report the retirement of some veteran mushers; others are taking a break to recover financially after the pandemic; inflation and the loss of deep-pocketed sponsors under continued pressure from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA ran full-page ads in newspapers in Alaska’s two largest cities, exposing what it calls the cruel abuse of dogs forced to carry their mushers and gear over the thousand-mile race. The group also staged a protest outside the annual musher banquet on Thursday.
Gordon and Beth Bokhart of Fort Wayne, Indiana, made their first-ever trip to Anchorage specifically to see the Iditarod after getting a taste of the sport while participating in a dog sledding tour in Canada. Since then they have spent a lot of time reading about the Iditarod and racing history.
“It’s just amazing,” he said. Bokhart said people he spoke to about the race in Alaska thought it would bounce back.
“Having been here, I can tell you it’s an exciting thing to come and watch, and if everyone had the same experience as me, they would understand and want to come back,” he said.
Six mushers who count for 18 Iditarod championships are not racing this year. Last year the sport lost another four-time winner when Lance Mackey died of cancer. Mackey was named honorary musher for this year’s race.
Only 823 mushers have reached the finish line in the Iditarod’s first half-century, and only 24 individual mushers in all have won the grueling event. Mushers and their teams of dogs encounter some of the toughest conditions in wild Alaska, traversing both the Alaskan and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, mushing on the frozen Yukon River, traversing flat tundra and monotonous and sailing on the treacherous ice of the Bering Sea.
Along the way, they stop at numerous, largely Alaska Native communities that serve as checkpoints.
“It’s a celebration of spring for villages across the state. It kind of brings communities and people together for an event that celebrates the history of our state and dog mushing,” said Aaron Burmeister, an Iditarod musher who grew up watching the race end in his town. native of Nome and who finished in the top 10 eight. times over the past decade.
Climate change has played and will likely continue to play a role in how the race unfolds.
Global warming forced organizers to move the start line 467 kilometers north from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015 and 2017 due to a lack of snow in the Alaska Range. This will become more common as the weather warms and Bering Sea ice leading to Nome could also become thinner and more dangerous, said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the International Center for Arctic Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The challenges for the world’s largest sled dog race are mounting, said Bob Dorfman, sports branding expert at Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.
“With the high spending, the low payout, the dwindling sponsor support, the pressure from PETA, the danger of it all, it feels more like a trend than just an anomaly,” he said. Sass earned around $50,000 for winning last year’s race.
Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said the race is financially sound and he expects the Iditarod to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2073.
Dorfman didn’t disagree, but said the 2073 race might not be much different from this year’s race.
“I don’t see fortunes changing all that much,” Dorfman said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be more than 30 participants.”
Sass, 43, is considered the favorite to win the 2023 race. Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik and fifth Alaskan native to win the race, is the only other ex-champion in the field.
The winner is expected in Nome around nine or ten days after Saturday’s start.