Iditarod returns to 16-dog teams

Sled dogs at the ceremonial start of the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the last time teams were allowed to have 16 dogs each. (Alaska Public Media/KNOM photo)

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will once again allow up to 16 dogs per team in the thousand-mile race to Nome.

Race officials made the announcement in a media briefing Wednesday in Anchorage, where the race kicks off with a ceremonial start Saturday.

The Iditarod had set the limit at 14 dogs per team just five years ago after considering the expense of flying dogs back from the trail and to make it easier for smaller kennels to race in the Iditarod.

The thought at the time was also that it would be easier for each musher to take care of two fewer dogs, said longtime Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman.

“Yeah, definitely, there was some talk that, you know, with 14, people can control them a little better,” Nordman said. “But really, and it’s always in the figures of how many dogs were dropped, the percentages just didn’t change.”

In the early days, Nordman said, the Iditarod didn’t have a limit on the number of dogs in each team. Then the limit was 20 for a number of years until the more modern era, when it first went to 16, he said.

The decision to return to allowing 16 dogs per team came after a vote in Nome among 2023 Iditarod finishers that showed their support, Nordman said. The Iditarod’s Rules Committee took up the proposal and approved it, as did the Iditarod Trail Committee, which finalized the decision, he said.

Meantime, Iditarod teams competing in this year’s race are expecting bare ground on a section of trail north of the Alaska Range called the Farewell Burn, despite record-breaking snow in Southcentral Alaska this winter.

That’s mostly a concern for the mushers and their sleds, not so much for the dogs, Nordman said.

“Their footing is great. It’s, ‘Hey, it’s summertime, let’s go for a run!’ and so they take off,” he said. “The dogs are fine. I don’t worry about the dogs going across there. It’s the mushers that can get flipped and turned and have to be very awake.”

Nordman attributed the lack of snow in some sections to high winds and mid-winter warm-ups, but he said the rest of the trail is looking great until the teams reach the Bering Sea coast, where storms have broken up sea ice. He said the trail might need to be rerouted to go overland near Elim.

The 2024 Iditarod begins with the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday and the restart in Willow on Sunday, when the race clock begins ticking. A winner is expected in Nome early the week of March 10.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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