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Inside the 51st Iditarod: The meaning behind the ‘Last Great Race on Earth’

Mar 15, 2023


The 51st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is concluding during the week of Mar. 13, 2023 in Nome, Alaska. The 1,000-mile race began with a ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska, then a restart in Willow.

Straight Arrow News spoke with a number of mushers who participated, including the 2022 champion, Brent Sass.

“The sled dog was used hundreds of years ago for transportation and moving freight around,” Sass said. “And it comes from the Siberian Huskies and the Malamutes–all those big, northern dogs. But those dogs were good for hauling freight and surviving the weather and the winters, but they weren’t fast. And so over the years, as racing became something that started happening probably 50, 60 years ago, then we started breeding other sorts of dogs into them, like greyhounds and all kinds of different hound dogs and stuff like that to create what we all now consider the Alaskan husky and they say it’s just basically a mutt dog.”

This breeding is the reason why sled dogs do not necessarily look alike.

“A musher will look at the lineage of the dog, and this is all oral,” Iditarod Trail Committee Chief Operations Officer Chas St. George said. “Nothing’s written down. And this is so very much like the indigenous peoples. You know, they had oral histories of the dogs that were great and that continues today.”

Sass has more than 50 dogs in his own kennel.

“I think people need to understand that this is a year-round, 365-days-a-year, 24-hours-a-day thing for us,” Sass said. “We always have these dogs. These dogs are a part of our life. They’re our family and I feel like somehow along the way people don’t understand that we’re always caring for these dogs. It’s not like we go and we run these races and then they’re sitting on a chain the rest of the year.”

For years, the animal rights activist group PETA has protested the Iditarod.

“The dogs in the Iditarod are forced to race against their will,” PETA campaign manager Melanie Johnson said. “These are not super dogs, they are not indestructible pieces of sporting equipment. They’re just like any other dog who only wants to live and enjoy loving companionship. But the Iditarod continues to push them beyond their abilities, and as a result, dogs continue to suffer and die.”

At least 154 dogs have died in the race throughout its history, according to the Sled Dog Action Coalition.

“I think people worry sometimes about the dogs–that they’re not having fun or they’re not being cared for or they don’t like what they’re doing and I guess what I would say is just we’re all animal lovers–that’s why we’re running the Iditarod,” musher KattiJo Deeter said.

“The problem is that PETA’s smart with what they do and they go after the sponsors now more than they go after us because they figure they take the money away and then we’re going to be in trouble,” Sass said.

Several big name sponsors have pulled out in recent years, including ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo.

This year, Iditarod officials said the field of mushers was the smallest yet.

“33 mushers is a low end, but it’ll come back, it’ll bounce back,” musher Matthew Failor said. “We might not see 80 or 90 mushers like we used to. But dog mushing isn’t going to go anywhere.”

“If you look at our short-distance races that many of the young people love to do in communities all along the circumpolar and you look at the mid-distance races that are still really growing, we see a lot of possibility and promise,” Iditarod Trail Committee Chief Operations Officer Chas St. George said.

In early March, people from all over the world flocked to the pre-race events as well as the ceremonial start and restart.

“People rally around it—especially here in Alaska, but I mean I was signing autographs for people from New Zealand and Ireland and Switzerland and Ohio and Illinois and Iowa,” 2022 Iditarod champion Brent Sass said. “It was crazy, the amount of people that come from all over the world to see this event,” he said.

The race, which lasts more than a week, can be treacherous.

“I feel like I’ve seen a lot, but every time you do it, something else comes up, something else arises,” Failor said. “I’ve been through storms, open water, there was a moose on the trail that was trying to agitate the dogs last year.”

For some mushers, just completing the race without any assistance is an achievement.

“I’m running a puppy team—2-year-olds. My job is to make sure that those puppy teams have a good thousand-mile experience,” musher Gerhardt Thiart said.

For the winner, there’s a little more than $50,000 in prize money, which helps cover the cost of caring for the dogs.

“This is a labor of love—we don’t do this for the money,” Sass said. “If I was going to say that I raced for money, that would be a flat-out lie. I do this because I have a passion for sled dogs, I do this because I have a passion for my lifestyle. I do this because I love the dogs.”

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