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Road to Iditarod: Rural Native Mushers Dwindling Because of Funding

To Alaska Native peoples, the sled dog is as much a part of the culture as the canoe is to indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. And the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is as important to Alaska Native mushers as the Canoe Journey is to Native American canoe families in the Northwest. “It’s our history, it’s our way of life,” said Yup’ik culture bearer Mike Williams Sr., veteran of 15 Iditarods and three-time Most Inspirational Musher of the race.

Since before memory or record, dogs have been a valued part of Alaska Native families. They’ve hauled and packed supplies, helped hunt and track, watched over children, and warned of potential danger. “It’s something we want to tell the whole world: we’ve always had dogs in our villages,” Williams said. “We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years and they’ve helped us. We want to continue to keep that culture alive, to share our culture and why we run these dogs and why we have kept our dogs. We do it for more than competing.”

Alaska Native mushers are prominent in the Iditarod’s history, and three of the four earliest Iditarods were won by Athabascans: sprint and distance musher Carl Huntington, 1974; Emmitt Peters, “the Yukon Fox,” 1975; and Jerry Riley, 1976. John Baker, Inupiaq, won in 2011 and has 13 top 10 finishes.

But the number of Alaska Native mushers in the Iditarod – considered the premier long-distance sled dog race -- is dwindling. As of Jan. 15, only four of 75 mushers registered for the 2015 Iditarod, which begins on March 7, are Alaska Native. And that has some Alaska Native mushers worried.

In many rural communities, the sled dog is being replaced by the snowmobile. And some Alaska Native mushers fear that without an indigenous presence in the Iditarod and other big races, interest in mushing among young Alaska Natives will continue to wane. “I look at it from a traditional standpoint,” said Chuck Schaeffer, an Inupiaq musher who will race in his third Iditarod this year. “My dad was the last one to own dogs in Kotzebue when the snowmobile came along … On [training runs] from Nenana to Kotzebue, I go through a lot of Yukon River and Kobuk River villages. There’s not too many [Native] mushers anymore. It’s something that is being lost in our culture.”

The obstacles faced by Native mushers in bush Alaska: It takes longer and it’s more expensive to travel for training and competition. And it’s hard to take time off to travel and train and compete. “Our Costco is in the river and in the land,” Williams said. “We have to fish in the summer and put food away and take care of our families in the village. That’s what we depend on to survive.”

Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, finished 36th in the 2013 Iditarod and 14th in 2014 and was the 2014 Iditarod’s Most Improved Musher. Courtesy Real Diehl Racing

Some mushers say it can cost more than $100,000 a year to cover the cost of food, shelter and veterinary care for the dog team; mushing equipment and gear; fuel and transportation costs; and time off for training. In the bush, that kind of money is hard to come by, and Alaska Native mushers make up the difference between sponsorships and expenses out of their own pockets (Some mushers say sponsorships can range from in-kind donations to more than $10,000).

Removed from road systems, rural Alaska Native mushers are located far from potential sponsors and economic opportunity that can help cover the costs of training and competing. Several mushers on road systems operate businesses in which tourists can experience a dog sled ride, go on an excursion, and enjoy an overnight stay.

“We’re not in a road system. There’s no tourism,” Williams Sr. said. “A lot of those mushers that are in the road system, and are close to urban areas, and transportation and airports, they seem to do well in terms of entertaining tourists and telling the dog-mushing and Iditarod story. There are folks that pay to see that and feel that, but out here in the boonies in Akiak, we see hardly anybody.”

RELATED: Mushers Test Teams in Races Leading to 2015 Iditarod

To be winningly competitive in the Iditarod, a musher must train and compete year-round. Depending on the season, training requires that you travel to where the snow is. There are approximately six mid-distance races in Alaska, two long-distance races (three, including the Iditarod), and several club, festival and local races.

Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, of Aniak, laid out just how much more expensive it can be for a musher from the bush: Gasoline is $7.50 a gallon in Aniak, $3 a gallon in Anchorage; a 40-pound sack of dog food is $70 in Aniak, $48 in Anchorage; straw for the dogs’ bedding is $35 a bale in Aniak, $12 in Anchorage. Out in the bush, the veterinarian comes once every six months.

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“It’s a little bit harder, but if you don’t do road system races, your teams don’t get exposure,” said Diehl, the 2014 Iditarod’s Most Improved Musher and a competitor in this year’s race. He finished 14th in 2014, netting $21,700 in prize money. He has eight sponsors, among them, the Kuskokwim Corporation, Alaska Commercial Company, and Aniak Light and Power.

This is not a big-money sport for those who finish out of the top 10 or, depending on the race, the top 5. At the Iditarod, the prize money ranges from $70,000 (and a new truck) for the champion, to $1,900 for 30th place. Finish out of the top 30, and you take home a check for $1,049.

Schaeffer hoped to do well enough at the Kusko 300 to help pay the costs of his first Iditarod bid in 25 years. He moved four years ago from Kotzebue to Willow, north of Anchorage, to be closer to the road system and potential sponsors. “You own a kennel and spend a lot of time training, but you need to spend a couple of days each week to talk to people [about sponsorship],” he said. His sponsors include the Northwest Arctic Native Association, Maniilaq Association, The Arctic Sounder newspaper, Underdog Feeds, and several individuals and families.

Schaeffer makes up the difference with his income from construction. He hunts seal in the spring – “we only get two or three weeks to do that,” he said – fishes for salmon in the summer and sheefish in November, and traps fur animals in winter. He uses sheefish, a freshwater whitefish, as a high-protein food for his dogs and to trade for other kinds of dog food. “It’s one way I can cut expense,” he said.

Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, of Bethel, owns a plane and works for a construction company as a carpenter in the summer. His sponsors include Calista Corporation, his employer Knik Construction, Donlin Gold, Ryan Air, and numerous other companies, individuals and families.

After sponsorships and winnings, he makes up the difference with his income.

“I’m fortunate to have had people help me out quite a bit. It’s made it possible for us to get to where we are today,” said Kaiser, who’s had two top 10 finishes in five Iditarods; he finished 13th in 2014, netting $23,400. “Money is a big factor in this sport. If you’re just scraping by, you’re going to get stressed about it, and it’s only a matter of time before you’re not doing it anymore.”

Money is not the only stressor. Training has taken him away from his family – his girlfriend and their young son -- for as long as three months.

Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, has two top 10 finishes in five Iditarods and finished fifth in 2012. Courtesy Peter Kaiser

Still, being out on the ancestral routes with his dogs is part of his DNA. “It’s something I grew up doing all my life. It’s something I’ve always loved and wanted to do. Now, I love it even more,” he said.

Two prominent Yup’ik mushers, Williams Sr. and his son, Mike Jr., are skipping this year’s Iditarod to build their resources and prepare for 2016. Mike Jr. finished 13th, 11th, and eighth in three of five Iditarods, and the father’s goal is to see his son become the first Yup’ik Iditarod champion. “We’re taking a year off to rebuild our capacity,” Williams Sr. said. “We are getting ready to have Mike Jr. be very competitive on the Iditarod next year -- get our training in, hopefully garner some of the sponsorship we need to win the race or at least be one of the top contenders.”

Williams Sr. said he’d like to see bigger purses and more sponsorships for Alaska Native mushers. Just as the Canoe Journey has revived the art of canoe carving, travel on ancestral waters, and cultural teachings among young Native people, Williams Sr. believes a strong Native presence in the Iditarod would have a similar effect in young Alaska Natives.

“We need all the support we can get from Indian country and our Alaska Native corporations,” Williams Sr. said. “Native corporations help some, but not to a level where it’s something major. I appreciate their help, but I’ve been discouraged that Alaska Native mushers aren’t getting that consistent help. There’s been some help, but not to a level where we’ll be real competitive.”

Diehl said of Alaska Native presence in competitive mushing, “I think it’s real important [to the culture]. It shows the youth that with hard work, good things come from it. It can give them hope, give them something to look forward to. … It’s something that the community needs.”