ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Brent Sass was just miles away from fulfilling his dream of winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska when vicious 96 mph winds whipped in from the Bering Sea and reduced visibility to about 10 feet (3 meters) and forced him off the sled while his dogs crouched in the snow.
“I didn’t stop voluntarily,” laughed Sass, who was closing in on his first Iditarod win last year, but had five-time champion Dallas Seavey just a few miles behind. “We got blown off the trail and it took me an hour to gather all my stuff back up and figure out where I was.”
Sass regrouped and led his team of 11 dogs from the ice of the Bering Sea down Nome’s main street to the iconic curved finish line, winning the Iditarod, the world’s most famous sled dog race, in his seventh attempt.
Sass is back to defend his title in the race, which began Saturday with a fan-friendly 11-mile ride through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Thousands of people braved temperatures hovering near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.78 degrees Celsius) to line up to cheer on the mushers, who carried “Iditariders,” lucky auction winners, on their sleds for the ceremonial start.
Things get serious on Sunday with the competitive start of the race that will take racers nearly 1,609 kilometers across Alaska. It begins in Willow, about 113 kilometers north of Anchorage.
Sass was enthusiastic to hit the trail on Saturday, with 11 of 14 dogs returning from last year’s championship. “I think the replacements … are stronger dogs, so I’m very excited,” he said.
He expects mild temperatures until racers hit the West Coast, where there have been more swings and predicting trail conditions is almost meaningless since they change so quickly.
“They’ve been going from icy trails to snow trails and back and forth all season,” he said. – I think we will get what we get.
This is the 51st running of the Iditarod, but its 33 runners are the smallest field ever to start the race. Drivers and race organizers point to the retirement of some veteran drivers; others are taking a break to recover financially from the pandemic; inflation, and the loss of deep-pocketed sponsors under continued pressure from animal rights groups People for the ethical treatment of animals.
PETA took out full-page newspaper ads in Alaska’s two largest cities, denouncing what it called the cruel treatment of dogs forced to drag drivers and their equipment over the race’s thousand miles. The group also staged a protest outside the drivers’ annual banquet on Thursday.
Gordon and Beth Bokhart of Fort Wayne, Indiana, made their first trip to Anchorage specifically to see the Iditarod after getting a taste for the sport by participating in a dog walk in Canada. Since then, they have spent a lot of time reading about the Iditarod and the history of the race.
“It’s just been incredible,” he said. Bokhart said people he’s talked to in Alaska about the race feel it will pick up again.
“Having been here, I can tell you it’s an exciting thing to come and watch and if everyone else had the same experience I’ve had, they’d understand and want to come back,” he said.
Six drivers who account 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 runner for this year’s race.
Only 823 racers have crossed the finish line in the Iditarod’s first half-century, and only 24 individual racers in all have won the grueling event. Riders and their dog teams face some of the toughest conditions in untamed Alaska, crossing both the Alaska and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, driving the frozen Yukon River, traversing monotonous flat tundra and navigating the treacherous ice of the Bering Sea.
Along the way, they stop at many, mostly Native Alaskan communities that act as checkpoints.
“It is a celebration of spring for villages across the state. It kind of brings communities and people together for an event that celebrates the state’s history and sledding, said Aaron Burmeister, an Iditarod runner who grew up watching the race finish in his hometown of Nome and who finished in the top 10 eight. times the last decade.
Climate changes has and will probably continue to play a role in how the race is run.
The warm climate forced organizers to move the starting line 467 kilometers north from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015 and 2017 due to a lack of snow in the Alaska Range. It will become more common as the weather warms and the Bering Sea ice leading into Nome could also become thinner and more dangerous, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The challenges for the world’s premier sled dog race are increasing, said Bob Dorfman, a sports branding expert at Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.
“With the high expenses, the low payout, dwindling sponsorship support, the PETA pressure, the danger of it all, it feels more like a trend than just an anomaly,” he said. Sass earned about $50,000 for winning last year’s race.
Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach says 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 look that much different than this year’s race.
“I don’t see the fortunes changing that much,” Dorfman said. “I don’t know if there will be more than 30 participants.”
Sass, 43, is considered the front-runner to win the 2023 race. Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik and the fifth Alaska Native to win the race, is the field’s only other ex-champion.
The winner is expected in Nome approximately nine or ten days after Saturday’s start.