Fur Rondy’s sled dog sprint races draw a large crowd to downtown Anchorage

Andy Huetten was the first musher to start the 2023 Fur Rondy Open World Championship Sled Dog Races on Friday. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Friday marked the start of one of the most iconic events at the Fur Rondy winter festival in Anchorage: the World Championship Sled Dog Races. The three-day sprint mushing event brought veterans and rookies alike, all competing for the glory and prize money in front of a packed crowd.

Andy Huetten from Nenana was the first musher out of the chute at noon as hundreds gathered downtown to watch. Dogs whined, barked, bounded and sprinted across the snow. A total of 17 teams took off every 90 seconds. 

Race official Rick Cavens watched each team go by, in front of Fur Rondy headquarters on 4th Avenue and D Street. He said he’s the race’s Avenue Ambassador, a job he described as a “glorified parking attendant and crowd control.”

Mushers and their sled dogs will race three days in a row, continuing Saturday and Sunday, to compete for the fastest overall time, and their slice of a $55,000 purse. Cavens said the teams will run the same 26-mile loop each day. They’ll head out on city bike trails before passing through Far North Bicentennial Park and looping back to the start as they hit the Campbell Park Airstrip. 

Avenue Ambassador Rick Cavens. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Cavens, a veteran musher himself, said as they come back, mushers could end up face-to-face on the trail.

“You can have head-ons, which can be a little stimulating when you have 16 or more dogs,” he said.

Though competition is certainly fierce with 14 veterans joining three rookies on the trail, Cavens said there’s a lot of camaraderie. 

As crowds cheered on their favorite mushers, Cavens beamed. He said the Fur Rondy sprint races predate the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and at a time it was the premier sled dog event in the state. 

”It’s a sport born out of working-class dogs,” Cavens said. “These are ordinary men and women racing these dogs. Raising them, and just trying to put a little extra spin. You walk up to another guy’s truck and go, ‘I think I can do that better.’”

Rookie Mandy Johnson’s dogs jump with anticipation at the start of the sprint race. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Cavens sees the Fur Rondy as a family affair.

He mushed dogs for 23 years, and all four of his kids raced teams as well. On Friday, as he managed crowds, his wife was timing the mushers.

“These are our friends,” Cavens said. “We love them, we’re going to support them in their endeavors, even though we’ve already picked up our lifetime quota of dog poop.” 

Blayne Streeper had Friday’s fastest time. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

At the end of the first day’s heat, Blayne Streeper, of Fort Nelson, B.C., had the fastest loop time, with Salcha’s Gary Markley in second and Germany’s Michael Tetzner in third

The last musher to leave the chute today will lead the pack on Saturday. That will be Hugh Neff, a rookie to the Fur Rondy sprints but a longtime Iditarod competitor who was denied entry to the 1,000-mile race this year. Mushers will take off on the third and final loop on Sunday. 

Fur Rondy rookie Hugh Neff, an experienced Iditarod musher, sports a Dr. Seuss hat at Friday’s race. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The Fur Rondy fun doesn’t stop there, with a carnival, parade and other festivities keeping downtown Anchorage buzzing all weekend.

The 2023 Iditarod then kicks off next Saturday, March 4, with the ceremonial start downtown.

Read more about the events here.

Crowds cheer and take photos as musher Hans Gatt and his sled dog team pass them by. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Musher Frank Haberman’s team sprint through downtown. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Rookie Mitchell Jacobson. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Costumes ranged from heavy fur hats to large full-cover dog masks. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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