It’s sunny and minus 8 degrees on Dec. 20 in Akiak, Alaska, and Mike Williams Sr. is heading out to fish.
He needs to help feed his son Mike Jr.’s dog team as they prepare to compete in March in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The biggest challenge in recent years for rural Alaska mushers has been climate change. Warmer temperatures have required some mushers to travel farther from home — and more time away from family and work — in order to find ideal training conditions.
The latest challenge: rising costs.
As in the rest of the United States, rural Alaska has been hit hard by inflation, supply chain issues and product shortages. Gasoline was almost $3 a gallon higher than the state’s previous average in mid-December. A bag of kibble cost about $20 more.
“The cost of transportation and food has skyrocketed,” said Williams, a Yup’ik culture bearer and chief of the Akiak Native Community. “We’re consistently fishing for the dogs. We’re trying our best to offset the cost. The cost of everything has gone up.”
Williams and other mushers say those rising costs are one reason why the 2023 Iditarod — a roughly 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome — will have the lowest number of competitors since the first Iditarod in 1973.
The field of 34 this year includes two past Iditarod champs, several top-5 finishers and five Indigenous mushers, including Mike Williams Jr. But several top names are missing from the list, for a variety of reasons.
Four-time winner Jeff King, who turns 67 in February, will instead compete in shorter races this year. Lance Mackey, winner of four consecutive Iditarods in the 2000s, died Sept. 22 of throat cancer.
Five-time winner Dallas Seavey is taking a break to concentrate on his tourism business. His father, three-time winner Mitch Seavey, is also sitting out the race, although he said dogs from his kennel will be in two teams led by other mushers.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, winner of the 2018 Iditarod, is skipping the Iditarod for the first time in 11 years. And Thomas Waerner, winner of the 2020 Iditarod, will instead compete in the Finnmarkslopet in his native Norway.
Williams fears rising costs threaten the Iditarod, which to Alaska Natives spotlights a form of travel employed by their peoples for centuries. It was dog teams, not gas-powered engines, that delivered a life-saving serum across 674 miles of Alaska to stop a diphtheria epidemic in Nome and nearby communities in 1925, an event known as the Serum Run.
The Iditarod celebrates the importance of the Alaska sled dog by retracing part of the 1925 Serum Run route as well as routes traveled by Alaska Natives for generations.
Snowmachines began supplanting dog mushing in the 1950s and the Iditarod was founded in 1973 to call attention to Alaska’s dog mushing heritage and help keep it alive.
But Williams said competing in the Iditarod is becoming cost-prohibitive and the balance of working and raising sponsorship money is more challenging. He’d like to see more affluent tribes and tribal organizations support competitive mushing through sponsorships.
“We need sponsorships because we have to work,” Williams said. “As Indigenous mushers, we have to keep our way of life going.”
The Iditarod and other short-, mid- and long-distance races keep the sled dog in the norm for younger generations accustomed to travel by snowmachines. To lose the heritage of the sled dog, he said, would be like Plains Indians losing their horses.
2019 Iditarod champion Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, agrees.
“Most mushers that are doing Iditarod and other races really enjoy the dogs and are passionate about the sport and traveling with the dogs,” he said. “These races were created to keep the [heritage of] sled dogs alive because they were being replaced by snow machines and other forms of transportation. The whole idea behind Iditarod was to honor the Serum Run but also keep sled dogs relevant and keep them going. That’s the main purpose for the race.”
Without Iditarod and other sled dog races — such as the Kuskokwim 300 in his hometown of Bethel — a part of Alaska Native culture would pass away, he said.
“There’s a thriving racing community in the Bethel area,” Kaiser said. “That’s 100% due to the Kuskokwim 300 organization being able to raise money and put on a lot of races. [The prize money] allows kennels to be able to afford their next dog food shipment. It’s kept mushing quite relevant down here.”
‘Nobody’s ever gotten rich racing dogs’
Kaiser estimates the annual expense of maintaining his kennel is as much as 20% higher than the previous year.
A veteran of 13 Iditarods, his Iditarod earnings range from $17,111 for a 14th-place finish to $51,299 and a new 4×4 pickup truck when he finished 1st. He said he sold the truck so he could have some extra cash.
Kaiser buttresses his finances with summer income working for a construction company, and from sponsorships and top finishes in other races. He received $25,000 when he won the Kuskokwim 300 title — his sixth K-300 title — in January 2022.
“There’s never been gigantic purses in racing and nobody’s ever gotten super-rich racing dogs,” Kaiser said. “It’s one of those sports where you want to be able to make enough money one season so you can afford it the next season. For more people, it’s just getting harder to be able to afford it year after year after year. So I think you’re going to start seeing people running every two years or so, and not every year, so they can build up funds.”
Before the 2022 Iditarod, Mike Williams Jr. estimated his costs of maintaining his racing team at between $30,000 and $40,000. That included transportation, dog food, gear for dogs and musher, vet checks, handlers, sled maintenance and spare parts.
Consider the increased costs of just fuel and food, and prize money from a top 10 finish wouldn’t cover the costs. Prize money in 2022 ranged from $51,798 for champion Brent Sass to $10,284 for 20th place finisher Paige Drobny. All finishers from 21st to last place received $1,049, an amount that symbolizes the roughly 1,000 miles of the race and Alaska’s status as the 49th state in the Union.
“We just purchased a ton of meat from the Lower 48 and the price of the meat was cheaper than the cost to get it up here,” said Kristy Berington of Knik, Alaska. She and her twin sister Anna own Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing, a kennel that in December had 49 dogs. Both sisters are Iditarod veterans, with career-bests at 16 and 17, respectively, in 2019.
Kristy Berington estimates she and her sister spend about $1,500 per year per dog, up from $1,000 a year ago. Multiplied by 49 dogs, that’s a total of $73,500, including entry fees, race supplies and travel, and kennel care while away racing. Their combined Iditarod earnings from their career-best 2019 finishes were $27,786, not enough to cover the annual kennel expenses that year. They offset the difference with their summer income, by doing work at the kennel that might otherwise be hired out, and from sponsorships.
“We couldn’t compete without sponsors,” Berington said. “Definitely, those mushers who do the best, that’s who businesses want to be part of their team and want representing them. At the same time, much of it depends on the amount of effort the musher is willing to put in for that business or company. We do a lot of appearances for our sponsors. We have patches on our parkas, on our dog coats and on our truck. We do a lot to keep our sponsors happy.”
Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, is a carpenter living in Aniak, a community of 500 on the south bank of the Kuskokwim River.
“Everything in rural Alaska has to be flown in, and for me to get a good sack of kibble it’s $91 a bag landed in Aniak, up from $70 to $75 a bag,” he said. “We use one bag a day and that’s not including all the meats they’re eating and everything else. Things are expensive on the road system, but even more so out here in rural Alaska.”
In addition to food and transportation costs, mushers must take time off from work to train and compete.
“If it keeps rolling like this, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay in it,” Diehl said.
For the love of the dogs
The 2023 Iditarod lineup includes five Indigenous mushers: Diehl, a veteran of nine Iditarods who finished 6th in 2018 and 2022; Kaiser, who won in 2019 and finished 5th four times, the latest in 2022; Lars Momsen, Sami, a veteran of the 2016, 2017, and 2018 Iditarods (career high 20th place, 2018); Ryan Redington, Inupiat, who finished 8th, 7th and 9th in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 Iditarods; and Mike Williams Jr., veteran of seven Iditarods (career-high 8th in 2012).
Redington’s grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., co-founded the Iditarod in 1973 and several Redingtons are Iditarod veterans.
The lineup also includes the Berington sisters; father and son Gregg and Bailey Vitello of Milan, New Hampshire; and last year’s 3rd place finisher, Jessie Holmes, who’s known to TV audiences from the National Geographic series, “Life Below Zero.”
Mushers hail from five states and Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and South Africa.
Arguably, many eyes will be on Sass, the defending champion. Sass, of Eureka, Alaska, moved out of cell phone range in mid-December to train for a succession of progressively challenging races leading to the Iditarod.
Sass placed second in the Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race, also known as the Knik 200, on Jan. 8, just 12 minutes behind Iditarod rookie Eddie Burke, and will also compete in the 300-mile Copper Basin on Jan. 14, the Kuskokwim 300 on Jan. 27, and the 550-mile Yukon Quest on Feb. 11.
Other mushers are being more selective in their choice of races leading up to the Iditarod.
The Beringtons will test their dogs’ mettle in some mid-distance races that are close to home.
“I would love to go up and do the Kusko 300 and all these other races but I just really can’t afford it, which keeps us a little more local,” Kristy Berington said. “We do the Knik 200 which is basically in our backyard, and the Willow 300, which is in Willow, about a 45-minute drive from here, because we can’t afford to drive all the way to Glenallen and compete in the Copper Basin, for example.”
Berington said she’s been asked why she and her sister don’t put their resources into developing and racing one team that might have a better chance at winning the Iditarod.
“That’s not why we do it,” she said. “We love to travel with our dogs together and train our dogs together. I’d love to win the Iditarod — don’t get me wrong — but at the same time, I don’t think I’d trade that for the experiences I’ve had with my sister and our dogs together out on the trail.”
Ryan Redington and his team will compete in the 300-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Race, which begins Jan. 30 and runs from Grand Portage to Duluth, Minnesota. Redington is a past John Beargrease champion.
Diehl and Kaiser and their dogs will compete in the Kuskokwim 300, considered to be the most challenging of mid-distance races. Diehl won the Kuskokwim 300 in 2021; Kaiser has won it six times.
“Brent’s got a really good team and I’m sure it helps doing all those races,” Diehl said. “The big reason I do the Kusko and Iditarod is that the expense of shipping dogs around is pretty outrageous. You have to pick and choose when you’re going to ship your dogs.”
Diehl had a banner season in 2022: 3rd in the Kuskokwim 300, 6th in the Iditarod, 2nd in the Kobuk 440.
“I have a pretty competitive team. If I do things right, I should do well and be right there with Brent and Pete,” Diehl said.
But he admits the challenges ahead.
“I think the first couple of days are pretty challenging for me mentally, trying to get my body into the sleep schedule, and going through the Alaska Range [requires] some of the most technical driving,” he said. “I just want to keep my team as whole as possible without any injury.”
ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, is a nonprofit news organization that covers the Indigenous world with a daily digital platform and weekday broadcast with international viewership.