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Iditarod 2015: Lack of Snow Forces Route Changes; Pioneers Honored

In addition to the fact that it involves a traditional form of travel on ancestral routes, two other features of the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are reminders of the connection between Alaska Native peoples and mushing.

The 2015 Iditarod started with an honoring of the late Philip Esai, Athabascan, who with his wife Dora volunteered in every Iditarod. Esai passed away on May 21, 2014, and the Iditarod Trail Committee posthumously named him honorary musher of Iditarod XLIII.

And the route of this year’s race, adjusted because of the lack of snow on portions of the usual route, will pass through Huslia, the hometown of the late Hall of Fame musher George Attla Jr. Attla, Athabascan, passed away on Feb. 15. He was 81.

Attla mushed in the first Iditarod, placing fourth, but was most known as a sprint musher, winning 10 Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship races, nine Tok Race of Champions titles, eight North American Open Championships, eight Koyukuk River Championships, and 10 International Sled Dog Association unlimited class medals. He was the subject of the movie, “Spirit of the Wind,” and he authored a book on training and racing sled dogs.

Esai was remembered at the pre-race mushers’ banquet at Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on March 5. And on March 7, Dora Esai wore honorary bib No. 1 for her husband, and rode with 2015 Junior Iditarod champion Kevin Harper in the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.

Esai worked on the original trail from Rohn to McGrath and, in the early years of the Iditarod, he and his wife housed mushers at their cabin along the banks of the Kuskokwim River at Big River. “There was no room in the cabin because mushers were sleeping everywhere,” their daughter, Marty, said in an Iditarod press release.

The Esai family cooked beaver, moose steaks, pots of moose stew, and an occasional lynx fry for mushers, and the coffee pot was always on for anyone traveling the trail, the Iditarod press office reported.

Over the years, Esai reopened trails, searched for lost mushers and lost dogs, and greeted and fed mushers at a bison camp near Nikolai on the Farewell Burn trail. According to the Iditarod press office, Esai once stayed up for 48 hours to make sure his duties were complete.Race director Mark Nordman said, “His laughter, hardworking spirit and good cheer during the Iditarod race will be greatly missed.”

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The Iditarod’s restart, on March 9, was moved from Willow to Fairbanks, 300 miles north, because of lack of snow.

Who’s mushing in the 2015 Iditarod?

Seventy-eight mushers are expected to leave the starting line on March 9. Mushers hail from eight states and seven countries. Four mushers are Alaska Native: John Baker, Inupiaq; Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan; Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik; Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq.

Six mushers are past Iditarod champions: Baker (2011); Martin Buser (1992, 1994, 1997, 2002); Jeff King (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006); Lance Mackey (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010); Dallas Seavey (2012, 2014); Mitch Seavey (2004, 2013).

This year’s field includes newly minted champions of other races. Kaiser, who has two top-10 finishes in five Iditarods – he placed a respectable 13th the last two races – won the highly regarded Kuskokwim 300 mid-distance race in January. Brent Sass, who placed 13th in the 2012 Iditarod -- his rookie year -- and 22nd in 2013, won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February.

There are two sets of fathers and sons (Martin and Rohn Buser, Mitch and Dallas Seavey); one set of brothers (Jason and Lance Mackey); one set of sisters (Anna and Kristy Berington); and one married couple, Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore.

Mushers have diverse career backgrounds. Among them: Cindy Abbott teaches health science at California State University, Fullerton, and in 2010 summited Mount Everest. Zoya DeNure is a former runway fashion model who operates a canine rescue in Delta Junction, Alaska. Tim Hunt is a veterinarian in Marquette, Michigan. Scott Janssen of Anchorage is the “Mushin’ Mortician.”

One Iditarod veteran’s prediction: Yupiit Nation Chief Mike Williams Sr., a veteran of 15 Iditarods and three-time Most Inspirational Musher, is watching the race from his Akiak home this year. He and his son, Mike Jr., a five-time Iditarod veteran (and 2012 eighth-place finisher) are taking a break to build resources and train for the 2016 race.

Williams Sr.’s pick to win this year? Pete Kaiser, who finished fifth in the 2012 Iditarod and has three mid-distance championships on his record. “We grew up racing with his parents,” Williams said. “Pete’s a friend. He won the Kusko 300 this year. He’s got a shot at it.”