Three Iditarod champions vie for another victory

A large crowd gathers on both sides of the road as a sled dog team races.
Fans cheer on the mushers as they leave the starting line in Anchorage for an 11-mile route through town, ahead of Sunday’s official start. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

The 2024 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicked off with brisk, gusting winds and sunny skies at the race’s ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, amid hundreds of barking sled dogs and thousands of cheering race fans.

A windchill of 2 below zero made for perfect dog mushing weather, as 38 teams set off from downtown at two-minute intervals on an untimed, 11-mile jaunt on the streets and public trails of Alaska’s largest city. The field includes three former champions, 16 rookies and 22 veteran mushers, all racing the 1,000-mile trail to Nome.

Each team is also allowed to have up to 16 dogs again. The Iditarod decided to return to that limit after five years with a 14-dog maximum.

While the ceremonial start is more of a sled dog pageant than a race, the real competition begins Sunday, when the teams take off from Willow and the race clock starts ticking. A winner is expected to finish in Nome roughly eight days later.

And nobody in this year’s race has more first-place Iditarod finishes than Dallas Seavey, mushing out of Talkeetna and looking to break a tie with fellow five-time champion Rick Swenson.

In between pacing from the rear of his dog truck to where his gangline was laid out in front of his sled on a downtown sidestreet, the bundled-up Seavey said he wasn’t thinking much about Swenson or his competitors, even as he acknowledged he’s poised to make history.

“So yes, we’re focusing on trying to get number six, and all that really means is I’m trying to do my best in this race, because that’s how you win a race, is you do all the little things perfectly,” Seavey said. “But, you know, honestly, I like doing this because I like doing it, not because I want some record.”

A man in black coat waves to fans on a dog sled.
Former Iditarod Trail Champion Dallas Seavey waves to fans at the 2024 Iditarod ceremonial start. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Seavey’s team of Alaskan huskies were tethered to his dog truck, some looking curiously at passersby, others more cautious as a reporter approached to snap their photos. Dogs nearby were either curled up or sitting calmly, seeming to soak up the sun, not appearing bothered by the wind. Some yapped continuously or leapt up in their harnesses as other dog teams passed by headed for the starting line.

Seavey took a year off from the Iditarod in 2023, and Ryan Redington notched his first victory in the race his grandfather founded over 50 years ago. Redington is hoping for another win this year, his ninth Iditarod in a row, including several top-10 finishes and a six-year span that included five mid-race scratches.

Clad in his signature light green gear, just like his sled and dog handlers, Redington was laying out harnesses for his dogs in preparation for their ceremonial run through Anchorage.

Redington said winning the Iditarod – and a championship trophy that’s a bust of Redington’s grandfather, Joe, known as the “Father of the Iditarod” – had been life-changing.

In the past year, Redington said, he’s traveled all over Alaska and spoken to hundreds of students at schools across the state.

“Yeah, my message is, ‘Don’t give up on your dreams.’ You know, it took me until I was 40 years old to win the Iditarod, and we had some up and down years, but we didn’t give up, and we continued on,” Redington said, adding that he also tells the kids about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.

A man in a green jacket waves to fans on a street in downtown Anchorage Alaska.
Ryan Redington waves to fans at the 2024 Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Another former champion in this year’s race is Pete Kaiser, who has run it every year since 2010, scratching only once.

Kaiser won the Iditarod in 2019 and, coming off his eighth Kuskokwim 300 victory this year in his hometown of Bethel, said he has high hopes for a good finish.

“Anything can happen out there, of course,” said Kaiser, wearing beaded gloves and a fur hat, unfazed by gusts of wind whipping down Fourth Avenue. “There’s a lot of obstacles to avoid and different things, but I’m excited about our chances and hoping to do well.”

A man in a black puffy jacket walks out of his sled dog trailer
Pete Kaiser, winner of the 2019 Iditarod, walks out of his dog trailer at the 2024 ceremonial start. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

This year, as usual, those obstacles will include a mostly snowless stretch of trail past the Rohn checkpoint about 190 miles into the race in an area known as the Farewell Burn. In years past, the rocky, dirt-covered trail has proven difficult – not for the dogs, whose paws get better traction – but for the mushers and their sleds, both of which can be damaged from bouncing over, and sometimes into, the rocky terrain.

Veteran musher Aaron Burmeister knows that well. A decade ago, Burmeister thought about scratching in Nikolai after suffering a serious knee injury on his way into the checkpoint, but he pushed through the pain to finish the race, a feat he’s accomplished 21 times, more than any other musher in this year’s Iditarod.

A man in a red jacket with a white bib that has the number 29 on it raises his hand up in the sky as people on the side of the street look on.
Aaron Burmeister brings his sled dog team to a momentary stop near the starting line of the Iditarod ceremonial start. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

Burmeister, originally from Nome and now mushing out of Nenana, talked about retiring after the 2022 race. But Burmeister said another founding father of the Iditarod, Howard Farley, convinced him to set retirement aside.

“Howard told me I have to do it one more time. He told me several times last summer, every time I bumped into him, ‘Aaron, you can’t be done. You’ve got to do it one more time. We still need victory brought home to Nome,’” Burmeister said.

Farley passed away in January. Burmeister said he would be carrying his friend and mentor’s ashes in his sled this year, on his way to what he hopes will be his ninth top-10 finish.

Another Iditarod musher hoping to return to the top 10 is Cantwell’s Paige Drobny, who finished 7th in both 2019 and 2020 but no higher than 19th since then.

Drobny had what was easily the most festive attire at the Iditarod’s ceremonial start, with a disco-ball helmet, a silver-sequined cape and matching, shiny capes made from space blankets for each of her dogs.

Paige Drobny, a veteran Iditarod musher, at the race’s ceremonial start. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Drobny is considered one of the top women mushers in the race, along with Mille Porsild and Jessie Royer, though she said most of the dogs in her team this year are young and haven’t run the Iditarod before.

And while Drobny said she doesn’t think about being the first woman to win the Iditarod in more than 30 years, she said such an accomplishment would be significant.

“Yeah, sure, I mean, I think it would be great for the sport. I think it would be great for women empowerment and women and girls around the world,” she said. “I do think it would be a really cool thing. It’s definitely not something I focus on when I’m out there, but I would certainly celebrate whoever did it.”

Two top Iditarod mushers are missing this year, both having been embroiled in separate accusations of violence against women.

The race’s 2023 Rookie of the Year, Eddie Burke Jr. had been facing a felony charge of domestic violence assault heading into the race. First, the Iditarod disqualified Burke less than two weeks before the start. Then it reinstated him when the state Department of Law announced it was dropping the charges due to the alleged victim declining to participate in the prosecution. Burke later took himself out of the race by withdrawing, saying he had leased dogs from his team to other mushers in the meantime.

The Iditarod also disqualified Brent Sass, who won the race in 2022, less than two weeks from the start and nearly four months after receiving a letter accusing Sass of sexually assaulting multiple women over the course of a decade. Sass’ disqualification also came about a week after reporters for Alaska Public Media, the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica first contacted race officials asking for comment on the letter and allegations made by two women directly to the newsrooms.

Sass has maintained his innocence and was never charged with a crime related to the allegations.

A few days before the ceremonial start, longtime Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman addressed the disqualifications, saying they’d been done based on “common sense rules.”

“Once you sign up, if you have trouble with anything, and your name is in the paper, it’s not ‘Mark Nordman,’ it’s ‘Iditarod musher Mark Nordman,’” he said, giving himself as an example.

Nordman said that if there’d been a “cloud” hanging over the race, it had moved on.

“Well, it has been on everybody’s mind,” he said. “We spent a huge amount of board time, of staff time, dealing with the issues and stuff. But a cloud? I think we’re beyond the cloud.”

a portrait of a man outside

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

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