Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Iditarod sees smallest field of competitors on trek to Nome

The 51st running of the 1,000-mile trek kicked off Sunday.

WILLOW, Alaska (CN) — Under a bright sunny sky and brisk temperatures, 33 mushers began their race to Nome on Sunday in the 51st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — dubbed the “last great race on earth.”

Competitors launched with teams of up to 14 dogs on the line from Willow, about 50 miles north of Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage on a 1,000-mile trek northwest to the former gold rush city of Nome on the Bering Sea coast. The route follows the historical gold rush and mail trail, winding its way up and over 3,000-foot mountain passes in the Alaska and Kuskokwim ranges, over rushing rivers and along desolate stretches of Bering Sea ice.

Pre-pandemic-sized crowds were back in force in downtown Anchorage for Saturday’s ceremonial start and the Willow official start two hours north. This is the smallest field of mushers in five decades of the annual race.

Only two former champions returned to try a repeat — 2022 champion Minnesota native turned bush Alaska wilderness guide Brent Sass and 2019 winner Alaska Native Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska.

Several past champions aged out of the arduous trek and have retired, while other well known veterans say they are taking a year off to save enough funds to return to the trail. The cost of fuel and dog food have increased substantially this past year making it much harder to justify paying the $4,000 entry fee and the funds needed to pack drop bags full of meat, kibble and human food for the approximately 10-day adventure.

In addition to veteran Alaska-based mushers, the race features four from the Lower 48, a father and son from New Hampshire, and competitors from Montana and Idaho. The international field this year is also small with just one each from Australia, Canada, Denmark and South Africa.

The race, first run in 1973 with 34 teams, began as a way to honor and revive a traditional mode of transportation between remote communities where dog power was rapidly replaced by snow machines in the 1960s. Since its inception fewer than 1,000 individuals have completed the Iditarod.

Of the 33 mushers this year, there are 25 men and eight women. Twenty-four mushers are veterans of the trail who sport a finisher’s belt buckle awarded after completing their first race. Nine are rookies vying to capture their own belt buckle and join those with bragging rights and tell their own tales from the trail — the fewest rookies in race history.

In the last decade of racing, the winner pulled their team under the famous burled arch finish line in Nome in about nine days compared to several weeks during the early years of the race. Alaska’s record-breaking snowfalls this winter along the entire route is expected to slow the race down a bit. Race officials describe trail-breaking difficulties, with snow machines and drivers in chest-deep snow.

This year’s total prize purse is around $500,000, with the expected top prize of $50,000. As of Monday morning, the leaders are 140 miles into the race and through three of the 21 checkpoints on the way to the finish.

Categories:Regional, Sports

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.