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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins March 5 in Anchorage but the road to the race has been fraught with obstacles: bad weather that derailed training plans, a pre-Iditarod race that was postponed, an unexpected illness that took a musher out of competition, and a moose attack during a training run that hospitalized several dogs from a rookie musher’s team.

As of Feb. 22, 49 mushers are scheduled to compete in the continent’s premier sled dog race. Among the competitors are five past Iditarod champions, several top Alaska Native mushers, and leading mushers from other prominent races.

Mushers and dog teams have been putting training, strategy and stamina to the test in a succession of winter races, before they begin the storied race that will take them over 1,000 miles of flatland tundra, treacherous inclines, blizzard-prone summit passes, steep gorge descents, and frigid river overflow.

Related stories:
First Yup’ik wins Iditarod in 2019
Native mushers finish in Iditarod's top 10 in 2021
COVID forces checkpoints, withdrawals at 2020 Iditarod

Four Alaska Native mushers expected to compete in the Iditarod this year are Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik champion of the Iditarod (2019) and six-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300; Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, a past Kuskokwim 300 champ who placed sixth in the 2018 Iditarod and ninth in 2021; Ryan Redington, Inupiaq, a two-time champion of the John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota and a seventh-place finisher in the 2021 Iditarod; and Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, who finished a career-best 28th in the 2019 Iditarod.

But they’ll face stiff competition.

Martin Buser has mushed in 38 Iditarods and finished 19 times in the top 10, winning the championship four times.

Nicolas Petit's six top-10 finishes in the Iditarod include second place in 2018. He won the 200-mile Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race in Wasilla on Jan. 2.

Brent Sass finished fourth in the 2020 Iditarod and third in 2021. He won the Copper Basin 300 on Jan. 12 and the Yukon Quest on Feb. 8.

Mitch Seavey has mushed in 27 Iditarods, finishing 18 times in the top 10 and winning the championship three times.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the 2018 Iditarod champion, has raced in nine Iditarods and never finished out of the top 10.

And then, there’s the force of human nature that is Dallas Seavey, winner of five Iditarod championships in 10 years — three of them consecutively, his winning streak broken when he finished second to his father, three-time champion Mitch, in 2017.

Musher Dallas Seavey, shown here on March 15, 2021, with his dogs after winning Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, will be trying for a record-breaking sixth championship in 2022 - the most in the race's 50-year history. Four Indigenous mushers will be competing in the 2022 race: Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik champion of the Iditarod (2019); Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, who placed sixth in 2018 and ninth in 2021; Ryan Redington, Inupiaq, a seventh-place finisher in 2021; and Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, who finished a career-best 28th in 2019. (Photo by Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP, Pool)

A sixth Dallas Seavey championship would be unprecedented in the race’s 50-year history.

“He puts his whole life into mushing,” Iditarod veteran Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, said Feb. 7 before he and his dog team embarked on a training run in Akiak. Williams later withdrew from the 2022 Iditarod for medical reasons.

“He’s prepared, trained and ready and he obviously does a top-notch job of it. He’s an athlete himself — a top-notch athlete — and he has the mindset of a champion. How do you beat that?”

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A lot of people — mushers and observers — may be asking that very question: Can Seavey, the Tom Brady of the Iditarod, be beaten? Indian Country Today reached out to Seavey twice by phone and once by email the first week of February. His office said he was training with his team.

Master strategist

Seavey won the Iditarod in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016; placed second in 2017; took a hiatus to compete in the 745-mile Finnmarksløp in Norway, placing third in his debut; then returned in 2021 to win a fifth Iditarod championship, one of only two mushers to do so in the history of the race.

Racing in the Iditarod requires good dog care, nutrition, training and stamina, of course, but it also requires the musher be able to read his or her dogs, be able to adjust to trail conditions, and it requires strategy.

Seavey is a master strategist; he’s also tricky. In one race, he and his team rested at a checkpoint off-trail and out of view; other mushers, not seeing him at the checkpoint, didn’t stop to rest, thinking he was still running. Their energy sapped, they had to take longer rests later and a well-rested Seavey and team blew past them.

“You need to do the training and do the job that’s necessary to be in the top,” said Ulsom, the 2018 champ. “You need a good plan. More than anything, you need to run your team and adjust as you go and read them the best you can, see what kind of rest and what kind of running you did on the last leg and what you’re expecting on the next leg, and try and optimize the team you’re driving.”

It's also important to understand your competition.

“Dallas, when he does something, he does it 150 percent,” Ulsom said. “He’s really focused and when he goes, he goes. He trains as hard as possible — right on the red line as far as what training can be done, and he does it really well where his dogs come out feeling like Superman, as he says.”

Ulsom and Kaiser said Seavey is definitely the guy to beat.

“He leaves no stones unturned in his training and he’s very good at executing his race,” said Kaiser, who won his sixth Kusko 300 title on Jan. 31 and the Bogus Creek 150 on Feb. 20. “He’s the team to beat I’m sure, but there are other very good, strong teams that have the potential and ability to win the race.”

Kaiser added, “Some of it all comes down to whose race plays out the best. You can have a very good driver with a very good team that’s had really good training and sometimes things don’t come together, resulting in not-as-desirable a finish as they had hoped for. And then you have other teams where everything seems to be clicking that week. It’s kind of what everybody tries to do — get their teams to peak that week. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Indeed. Four-time champion Jeff King was 58 minutes ahead of the nearest competitor and on his way to a fifth title in 2014 when he and his team got off the trail in a blizzard some 20-or-so miles from the finish line, couldn’t find their way back and had to scratch. That opened the door for a Seavey win.

Petit was leading 777 miles into the race in 2019 but had to quit because his dogs were nervous about crossing the ice and wouldn’t go on. That opened the door for Kaiser to take the lead and win the championship.

Closing the advantage gap

To Alaska Natives with a sled dog team, mushing is a way of traveling the way of the ancestors, a continuation of the relationship between the First People and dogs that dates back millennia.

Joe Redington Sr., who is non-Native, founded the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race 50 years ago to celebrate the sled dog and keep Alaska’s mushing heritage alive.

To keep an Alaska Native presence in competitive mushing outside of village races, though, it takes money that’s hard to come by in the Alaska Bush — meaning areas not located on the road system.

Only five Alaska Natives have won the Iditarod since its inception: Carl Huntington, Athabaskan,1974; Emmett Peters, Athabaskan, 1975; Jerry Riley, Athabaskan, 1976; John Baker, Inupiaq, 2011; and Kaiser, 2019.

Seavey’s big advantage? Location, location, location. Fly into Anchorage, drive two and a half hours (or take a three-hour bus or train ride) and you’re at Dallas Seavey’s Alaska Sled Dog Tours in Talkeetna, where you can pay to play with the pups, go dog-sledding, and take a helicopter tour of a glacier. Or you can be at Mitch Seavey’s in Seward and stay in a cabin and partake in a dog-sledding adventure with his Ididaride Dog Sled Tours.

Joe Redington Sr., who founded the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1972, is shown in this 1997 photo after he finished his 19th race. Redington died on June 24, 1999, from cancer, and was buried in his favorite dog sled in Wasilla, Alaska. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

No one begrudges the Seaveys the economy they’ve built that fuels their Iditarod empire. But it’s hard to compete against it.

Williams, who must take off from his school maintenance job in order to train and race, said he expected that competing in this year’s Iditarod would have cost between $30,000 and $40,000. That’s for transportation, dog food, gear for dogs and musher, vet checks, handlers, sled maintenance and spare parts.

He said his young team had the potential to finish in the top 20, and maybe the top 10. But 20th place in 2021 was worth $8,332; 10th place was worth $17,553. Sponsorship money and winnings from other races would have to make up the difference.

Williams, a veteran of seven Iditarods, finished a career-best eighth in 2012 and has $85,998 in career Iditarod earnings.

“You’ve got to have sponsors,” said Mike Williams Sr., Mike Jr.’s father and a veteran of 15 Iditarods (career best 18th in 1997). “Those guys are well-sponsored. That’s what it takes – you’ve got to have top-notch sleds and equipment and you’ve got to have handlers. They have money to pay their handlers, they have top-notch vet care — we don’t even have a veterinarian in Akiak. They have equipment and trails and they do it full time.”

Mike Williams Jr., Yu’pik, participates in the ceremonial start to the 2013 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. He and his team were set to run the 2022 race but withdrew for medical reasons in February. (File photo courtesy of Mike Williams Jr.)

Mike Williams Jr., Yu’pik, participates in the ceremonial start to the 2013 Iditarod, in Anchorage. He and his team will set off on their fifth Iditarod on March 1.

Kaiser owns and operates a river boat charter in Bethel, a community of 6,500 located about 50 miles from where the Kuskokwim River meets salt water. Like Akiak, and unlike Talkeetna, Bethel is not located on the road system. Several flights a day bring equipment and supplies to Bethel from Anchorage, and cargo can be brought in by barge from May to October when the Kuskokwim River is not frozen.

How does Kaiser close the advantage gap between him and mushers on the road system? “I maintain a fairly small kennel,” he said. “That’s what I can afford and that’s what I can manage. It’s just me taking care of the dog yard and all the training.

“Richie [Diehl] is in the same boat, with extra freight expenses and what-not that we deal with out here. That’s kind of the way it is. There’s not a lot of money in the sport. If you have good sponsors, you’re fortunate to have that. The prize money is not great. If you do really well, you can make some money. But it’s not like anybody’s getting rich winning races.”

He added, “If the sport were to grow for the more rural teams and put them on a more even playing field, there’d have to be more money in some of these races so you could finance bigger kennels and some sort of staff to help train.”

Williams Sr. would like to see tribes and tribe-owned companies sponsor Alaska Native mushers. Doing so would increase the Alaska Native presence in mushing and help them Indigenous mushers be more competitive.

“If all of those [Indian Country] businesses gather their support to sponsor an Indigenous musher — call it a Sovereignty Run — he’d win,” Williams Sr. said.

Looking to 2023

The weather can make or break training for mushers in the Alaska Bush. Out here, you take what the weather gives you, whether it’s a changing climate that thaws the permafrost and causes riverbanks to erode, or rain events that turn trails to mush.

So it was for Mike Williams Jr.

“He trained hard this November, but then the weather turned bad — from good cold running to rain for three weeks,” Williams Sr. said. “The trail went to crap and it was dangerous, so there was no running for three weeks.”

The loss of three weeks’ training compelled Williams Jr. to withdraw his team from the Kuskokwim 300, the highly-regarded mid-distance race. He shifted gears, testing his team of Akiak Huskies in a succession of shorter races. But that plan was ultimately derailed.

Williams and his dog team won the 32-mile Season Opener (by three seconds) on Dec. 4 in Bethel, finished 10th in the 50-mile Holiday Classic on Dec. 23, and placed third in the 65-mile Akiak Dash on Jan. 29.

The Bogus Creek 150, originally scheduled for Jan. 15, was postponed to Feb. 19 because of thaw and poor trail conditions. But Williams was hospitalized with appendicitis and had to withdraw from Bogus Creek and the Iditarod.

Undaunted and with eyes to the 2023 Iditarod, Team Williams kept on keeping on. Brother-in-law Thomas Carl got Mike Jr. 's dogs in harness Feb. 12, stepped onto the sled and competed with the team in a 50-mile race in Bethel.

In the most horrifying experience of the season, a bull moose attacked rookie Bridgett Watkins’ sled dog team Feb. 3 as they were on a 52-mile training run. Several dogs were injured but were treated at a veterinary hospital and are expected to fully recover.

Watkins took to social media to thank the veterinary staff — and to ask for prayers for her dogs’ continued recovery. “These dogs are amazing,” she wrote. “It has taken an army to get us here. We are warriors [and] will not give up. Keep praying for us.”

As of Feb. 22, Watkins and other dogs from her Kennel on a Hill were on the roster to compete in the upcoming big race.

Career Iditarod earnings
As of Feb. 22, five current and past Iditarod champions are signed up to compete in the 2022 Iditarod, which begins March 5 in Anchorage. Here are their records and total Iditarod winnings to date.
Martin Buser: Veteran of 38 Iditarods; 19 top-10 finishes; champion in 1992, 1994, 1997, 2002; career earnings $819.91
Peter Kaiser: Veteran of 11 Iditarods; six top-10 finishes; champion in 2019 (first Yup’ik champion in race history); career earnings $312,111
Dallas Seavey: Veteran of 12 Iditarods; 10 top-10 finishes; champion in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2021; career earnings $496,661
Mitch Seavey: Veteran of 27 Iditarods; 18 top-10 finishes; champion in 2004, 2013, 2017; career earnings $879,997
Joar Leifseth Ulsom: Veteran of nine Iditarods; nine top-10 finishes; champion in 2018; career earnings $344,618
Source: Iditarod.com

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