Iditarod’s smallest field in race history begs the question: Why so few?

A sled dog team passes a resting team during the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The 34 dog mushers signed up to run the next Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race are the fewest in the race’s 50-year-old history.

In the beginning, one of the main goals of starting the 1,000-mile race was to keep alive a traditional form of Bush travel and the sled dogs that power it.

But as Iditarod has become more competitive and the middle- to back-of-the pack mushers who made it more of a cultural event have struggled — many pointing at the rising cost of living and maintaining a dog team — some are left wondering: Is dog mushing dying?

Longtime dog musher and past Yukon Quest champion John Schandelmeier, who’s also a columnist, has been pondering that question. And Schandelmeier says there are many factors contributing to fewer dog mushers with race-worthy kennels.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

John Schandelmeier: The time is a crucial factor and the fact that, you know, costs are going up, which means they have to make more money to support those dogs. And, the mushers, if you look at the musher list, a lot of the mushers that have been racing for 15 years are no longer there. They’re moved on, maybe some of them have families, some of them are older and are doing other things. You know, there’s just a lot of different factors, and I don’t think it’s any one thing. And then, go back years ago, ’80s and ’90s, a big part of the mushers were coming out of the Bush and coming into town and racing dogs, because they had dogs. Now, there’s nobody coming out of the villages, either Iditarod or Quest.

RELATED: This year’s Iditarod sign-ups matched the all-time low

John Schandelmeier
A selfie John Schandelmeier sent his wife, Zoya DeNure, from the Iditarod trail. (Courtesy Zoya DeNure).

Casey Grove: And it seems like a lot of folks point to the costs. I wonder, what does that take? And what are the things that have really gone up? I mean, I’m thinking about gas for running ATVs and things like that.

JS: I keep a pretty close handle on costs, and I always, in the past, I figured that you could raise a dog team for $750 a year per dog. So if I had 40 dogs, that was, you know, a little over 30,000 bucks. But those costs have changed considerably, because just the feed costs have probably, over the last 10 years, have almost doubled because of, not just the cost of the food itself, but the cost of getting the food to you. And then veterinary costs have increased. There used to be a few vets around who did sled dog care a little cheaper than you could get house dog care. Now, those costs have more than doubled. They’ve probably tripled. And the vets who are doing that kind of work in the villages and out are less and less and less and now there’s only maybe one. And, so, fuel is a huge factor, because, again, the ATV runs around and you got to train in the summer. August, September, October is pretty much all on wheels. And then traveling to train, because there’s quite a few mushers who can’t travel out of their home. And, yeah, that’s a factor.

CG: Is there also less money in it? I mean, I feel like we hear about Iditarod itself losing sponsors, and that’s happened over the last few years, but for individual mushers, is there less money in sponsorship dollars?

JS: Yes, I think so. Because mushing is sideline, it’s not a well-known sport. I mean, we’ve had sponsors over the years, and we couldn’t give anything in return, really. Like for instance, we were sponsored by Eukanuba for a few years, and I felt like, OK, so, is that gonna sell them enough dog food to cover the cost of sponsoring me? Which was, you know, valuable for us, but was it valuable for them? It never felt like it was. And then there’s, you know, how many people even go outside anymore? I mean, that’s what we see here. I think that’s a factor in a lot of things, because to be a musher you’re gonna have to get out there and be out there and be OK with being cold and all that. And I think that’s becoming less attractive in our society. I don’t think it’s there anymore.

CG: Do you think that’s a generational shift?

JS: I do. I think it’s something that we we’ve lost in our society, and I don’t think we’re going to get it back. I think we’ve lost that generation in the middle. And it’s because of electronics. And that’s, I’m totally convinced, and I have no qualms advocating that thought, because I think that’s the case with our world. We’re dependent on things that are not of us. We’re not dependent on ourselves anymore.

CG: I feel like, too, when you talk about technology, it’s kind of like more than just, ‘Did you take a GPS on your race?’ It’s like, ‘Are you comfortable enough stepping outside of that safety bubble to even be a dog musher?’

JS: Yes, and that’s what I was getting at. It doesn’t come back. Because it’s just what you just said, it’s a comfort level. It’s like, ‘I’m OK to be where I am, wherever that is.’ It’s not about where in the world I am, it’s where I am in my head. You know, am I comfortable where I am?

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts.

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