Update: This story has been updated to note that Indigenous musher Apayauq Reitan crossed the finish line.
Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
Brent Sass spent much of the 2022 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race in a position that might have intimidated less-experienced mushers.
Sass led much of the race, not knowing how far five-time champion Dallas Seavey was behind him. How fast was Seavey traveling? Would an additional rest allow Seavey to close in on him? Sass knew Seavey would sign each checkpoint log, would see when Sass checked in and out, and could adjust his own strategy accordingly.
Sass remained unfazed. His plan: Don’t worry about the competition.
“Just keep it conservative, don’t do any big pushes, and keep marching down the trail and try to maintain our speed,” he told Iditarod Insider on March 10 at the checkpoint in Cripple at mile 425.
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Sass said he would “just focus on my team for a few hundred miles before I start thinking about the competition.”
It was a plan that paid off.
Sass and his team maintained a 10-mile distance ahead of Team Seavey to win the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race March 15, crossing the finish line at about 5:40 a.m. Alaska time. The title came with a check for $50,000. Seavey cross the line in second place at 6:47 a.m. Alaska time.
Sass’ title is the crowning achievement thus far of his mushing career. The native Minnesotan who now lives in Eureka, Alaska, has raced in five Iditarods, earning Rookie of the Year in 2012 and placing fourth in 2020 and third in 2021. He won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in 2015, 2019 and 2020.
Indigenous mushers among best
Three of the four Indigenous mushers in the race – Richie Diehl, Peter Kaiser and Ryan Redington – finished in the top 10.
Kaiser, Yup’ik, came in fifth, crossing the finish line at 9:45:15 p.m. Alaska time on Tuesday, March 15. He was the race champion in 2019 and this is his seventh top 10 finish in 12 Iditarods. He is also a six-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300, a highly-regarded mid-distance race.
Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, was in the top 10 the entirety of the race. He and his team came in sixth, crossing the finish line at 10:02:13 p.m. It is Diehl’s third top 10 finish in eight Iditarods; he finished ninth in 2021 and sixth in 2018. He’s also a winner of the Kuskokwim 300.
Redington, Inupiaq, came in ninth, crossing the finish line at 12:26:38 a.m. March 16. It is his third consecutive top 10 finish; he placed seventh in 2021 and eighth in 2020. He is also a two-time winner of the Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue, Alaska, and the John Beargrease Marathon in Grand Portage, Minnesota.
At the finish line, Redington – grandson of Iditarod race founder Joe Redington Sr. and one of six Iditarod veterans in his family – paid homage to those who came before him.
“I think a lot about the great mushers, like Herbie Nayokpuk – the Shishmaref Cannonball – as well as Isaac Okleasik and my family,” he said. “I think my grandpa would be very proud of the race and the mushers. I’d like to say a big thanks to Brent Sass. Brent helped me in the race, he gave me dog food in Cripple and I’m very happy to see him win. I’m proud to be a Redington, proud to be in the race, and proud to be here in Nome.”
Iditarod veteran Charlie Schaeffer, Inupiaq, of Kotzebue, followed this year’s race and reported updates on social media. He told Indian Country Today the fact three Alaska Natives finished in the top 10 was significant. Dogs and mushing were part of Alaska Native culture for centuries, yet only five Alaska Natives have won the Iditarod: Carl Huntington, 1974; Emmitt Peters, 1975; Jerry Riley, 1976; John Baker, 2011; and Kaiser.
In the Alaska Bush – the part of Alaska not served by a road network – dog mushing as a means of transportation was replaced by the snowmobile, and subsistence living is a way of life.
“It's the evolution of society,” Schaeffer said. “There are not a whole lot of Native mushers left up here in the North. The mushing community in the Kuskokwim is still thriving, surprisingly enough. So, to have three of our people in the top 10 is still exciting. I have lived in an era watching the death of dog mushing. It's sad especially when you make the effort to attempt to revive the sport. It is just too expensive.”
Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, raced into the history books to become the first transgender woman to complete the Iditarod. She crossed the finish line just before midnight on Saturday, March 19, battling a storm along the Bering Sea coast with a team of young dogs.
As the final musher to cross the finish line, she received the Red Lantern Award, which recognizes the final musher for perseverance and determination.
Reitan had been racing competitively but cautiously, with the intent of ensuring her team of young dogs finished the race.
She had been racing most recently with nine dogs in harness. (Most mushers start with 16 and leave dogs at checkpoints depending on the dog's health and performance). She was also the first transgender woman to start the Iditarod.
Considering the Iditarod is 1,000 miles of flatland tundra, treacherous inclines, blizzard-prone summit passes, steep gorge descents and frigid river overflow, simply finishing the race is a significant accomplishment. Forty-nine mushers and teams participated in the ceremonial start on March 8 in Anchorage. By the end, 12 teams had dropped out of the race.
Other highlights of the 50th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race:
*Native artistry. Alaska Native artistry received the spotlight during the Iditarod. The first musher to reach the checkpoint in McGrath (mile 311) received the Alaska Air Transit Spirit of Iditarod Award — a pair of musher mitts made of beaver fur and beaded moose hide, handcrafted by Athabascan artist Loretta Maillelle of McGrath. This year’s winner was Aaron Burmeister. He also received a beaver fur musher hat handsewn by Lucy Miller, Athabascan, of McGrath.
*Spirit of the Iditarod. When Iditarod musher Michelle Phillips’ sled broke late March 7, Redington offered her his spare sled waiting at the McGrath checkpoint. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so nice of you. Thank you,’ ” Phillips told Iditarod Insider on March 9. “I thought, ‘Your grandfather would be so proud. That’s the spirit of the Iditarod.’” Redington, grandson of Iditarod race founder Joe Redington Sr., told Insider in response, “I’m happy to help Michelle. I thought it was the right thing to do.”
*Alaska Native Country. The Iditarod trail passes through several notable Alaska Native villages. Nikolai, with a population of 125, was the first Alaska Native village that mushers visited, at mile 263. Ruby, at mile 495 with a population of 187, was the home of Athabascan musher Emmitt Peters (1940-2020), winner of the 1975 Iditarod. Other Alaska Native communities on the trail include Unalakleet, population 882; Koyuk, population 258; and Shaktoolik, population 199.
The Last Frontier is, of course, Native Country, with 231 federally recognized Alaska Native governments. Mushers travel the way of the ancestors, on ancestral routes, in sight of natural features that the ancestors knew.
“It’s a very special feeling to be traveling the traditional way of doing it,” Reitan said in a pre-race interview with Indian Country Today. “If you’re going across Alaska, you get more of a sense of scale when you travel on trails over 10 or 12 days. You could fly and go from north to south in one day, but you’re kind of missing the land.”
Mushers were united in praise for their teams of sled dogs.
Redington told Iditarod Insider on March 11 in Cripple (mile 425): “They’re doing really good, they’re feeling good, they’re eating so well. I feel confident in ’em but if we’re going for the win we’re way too far behind. We’ll still do the best we can.”
Pete Kaiser, on March 14 in Koyuk (mile 804): “They’re doing good,” he told Iditarod Insider’s Liz Failor. “Where we’re at is probably a best-case scenario for them. … We’re in kind of an interesting bubble of mushers here, battling for somewhere between third and maybe 12th or 13th. I guess we’re competing to get to Nome at this point. I think a lot of us want to get to Nome and be done. It’s been a long race.”
Richie Diehl, March 14 in Koyuk: “My team’s been doing awesome. … They’ve had a lot of spunk to ’em the whole race. It’s been cool to watch because we’ve raced pretty hard the whole time and they’re a lot of fun to be with.”
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