Twenty-seven mid- and long-distance races are qualifiers for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and in them you’ll see seasoned mushers and teams – some of them Iditarod champions – putting their training and experience to the test in the final weeks leading up to the Last Great Race on Earth.
Several of those races take place between now and March 4, when mushers depart Anchorage in the 1,049-mile Iditarod, the premier sled dog race. Among the most challenging pre-Iditarod tests are the Knik 200, Copper Basin 300, Kuskokwim 300, Tustamena 200, and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.
Iditarod veteran Nik Petit won the Knik 200 on January 8. The race, from Knik Lake to Yentna and back, drew a field of 33 competitors; Petit was one of 10 2017 Iditarod mushers in the race.
The Copper Basin 300 begins on January 14 in Fairbanks. Among the 45 competitors: Two-time Yukon Quest champion Allen Moore; and his wife, Aliy Zirkle, three-time Iditarod runner-up and the only woman so far to win the Yukon Quest.
The Kuskokwim 300 begins on January 20 in Bethel. This year’s race features some of the top Alaska Native mushers: Richie Diehl, a veteran of four Iditarods who placed a career-best 12th in 2016; defending K-300 champ Pete Kaiser, who has six mid-distance titles and two top-5 Iditarod finishes in eight years of competitive mushing; Isaac Underwood, a veteran of several mid-distance races and winner of the 2014 Walter Williams Memorial Race in Akiak; and Michael Williams Jr., a veteran of six Iditarods who finished a career-best eighth in 2012.
Also in the field of 25 K-300 competitors: four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King; nine-time top 10 Iditarod finisher Ramey Smyth; and Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who’s placed in the top 10 in all four of the Iditarods he’s entered.
The Tustamena 200 begins January 28 in Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula. The field of 32 competitors includes two-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey (father of four-time champ Dallas Seavey); and Knik 200 champ Petit.
The Yukon Quest – a 1,000 miler between Fairbanks and Whitehorse – begins on February 4 in Fairbanks. Seven 2017 Iditarod mushers are among the field of 23 Yukon Quest competitors, among them past Yukon Quest champs Allen Moore, Hugh Neff and Brent Sass (Neff beat Moore by 26 seconds in the 2012 race).
According to TheWinterForecast.com and Almanac.com, snowfall in Anchorage is 1 inch above average – more than double the total snowfall last year – with near- to below-average temperatures.
Snowfall was forecast to be slightly above normal with slightly cooler temperatures in Bethel and Fairbanks. But then, during the New Year’s holiday, it rained – “and we lost almost all of it,” said Kaiser, a Bethel native. He and his dogs ended up training in Fairbanks for the K-300.
Sled dog races are endurance tests like no other. Here, strategy is as important as fitness and training: setting and staying on pace, timing rests and nutrition intake, and taking advantage of opportunities to pick up speed when you can. And since you’re in Alaska, you’re treated to an environment that is sometimes harsh but always breathtakingly beautiful.
But for Alaska Native mushers, it’s about more than going for the gold; it’s about preserving an important part of the culture and traveling the way of the ancestors. The Iditarod and other races are to Alaska Native mushers what the Canoe Journey and canoe racing are to Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
Mushing is “our way of life,” Yupiit Nation Chief Mike Williams Sr. said in an earlier interview. “We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years. And we want to continue to keep that culture alive.”
Recommended: Follow the 2017 Iditarod at Iditarod.com. You can track the race live using the site’s GPS tracker, watch video interviews with mushers, and read race updates by Iditarod bloggers.