Iditarod Fever

>This Saturday, a colorful jumble of ski-jacketed, fur-clad, and zanily costumed enthusiasts will gather in downtown Anchorage. The cross section of revelers in the city’s streets, bars, and surrounding trails – so-called “trailgaters”—will mark the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. For a state that wears its rugged individualism like a badge of honor, the annual 1,000-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome signals more than the passage from deep winter to nascent spring. It operates as a kind of psychological gangline. “I can think of very few things that pull Alaskans together except for this—and a gas pipeline,” says Craig Medred, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter who has covered the Iditarod for the last quarter century.

Residents of the 49th state rarely walk in lockstep – except when it comes to oil and politicians. Just once since statehood have Alaskans voted for a non-Republican presidential candidate (in the 1964 Johnson landslide). Petroleum extraction, meantime, is the lube that greases the economy, accounting for roughly 80% of the state’s revenue. But these beacons of uniformity have taken a beating in the last couple of years. Pork barrel maestro Ted Stevens, the longest serving senator in U.S. history, saw his conviction for ethics violations dismissed last spring, but lost his 2008 reelection campaign, meaning he is out of both jail and public office. Meanwhile, former governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been reduced to waging cultural battles on Facebook over “Family Guy” plotlines. And with crude trading at about $80 per barrel, down from the giddy highs approaching $150 two years ago, the situation for the oil industry isn’t much brighter.

Which is why Anchorage’s cacophonous send-off of yelping dogs, hopeful mushers, and partying well wishers for the Iditarod has become the state’s de facto booster program. Sport a unifying force? That might seem a stretch for this nonconformist and sparsely populated state, where jobs, healthcare, and simply surviving the winter tend to take precedence. But as the “Last Great Race” has navigated periodic financial sinkholes over its 38 years, alleged cheating scandals, and attacks by animal rights activists, it has come to occupy a warm and fuzzy place in the collective consciousness. “It is a huge event for the state,” says Nome Mayor Denise Michels. “Even before Ted and before Sarah, it’s was very well known around the state and outside.”

Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley talks of the race’s “galvanizing effect” on Alaskans. “You won’t find many people in this state not focusing on what is happening on the trail once it gets going,” he says, adding with a chuckle that productivity probably lags a bit during the race’s March run. Even “outside” – i.e., in the Lower 48 and around the world – the race attracts an international following and field, including an entrant this year from Jamaica (Cool Runnings, anyone?) “I would argue from a global standpoint that fans remain fascinated by this annual Odyssey – not only who they want to win, but sharing in the challenges, pitfalls, triumphs and heartache that someone who runs this race endures,” adds Hooley, who is in his 17th year at the helm. For mushers, it goes even deeper. “It’s pretty primordial,” says 1989 Iditarod winner and author Joe Runyon, whose co-authored memoir with three-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey hits stores this month.

Part myth and part history, the race captures the pioneering spirit of Alaska that many can identify with, regardless of political, socioeconomic, or ethnic background. First staged in 1973, and held every year since, starting the first Saturday in March, the Iditarod commemorates the emergency delivery by mushers of diphtheria medicine to Nome in 1925. The race traverses some of the same icy mountain passes, frozen rivers, and arctic tundra as those 1925 mushers – a feat requiring a combination of skilled dog care, endurance, guile, and planning. Both dogs and mushers are pushed to the boundary of their physical limits. Winners arrive at the famous burled arch in Nome in about 8-9 days, with stragglers following another week or so behind.

Over the two weeks that it takes for the racers to show up in Nome, the dark days grow a bit longer, icicles start to drip in the midday sun, and the wind chill stops needling the face quite as sharply. The event thus marks a time when, according to Medred and others, the state’s heart starts to beat again, like a bear coming out of hibernation.

This year, unfortunately, the bear metaphor is apt in more ways than one. In its 38th incarnation, the Iditarod is facing a $1 million funding shortfall, as sponsors have dried up or disappeared. And organizers have had to slice prize money, cut salaries, and scramble for new revenue sources. Two main sponsors, Chevron and outdoor gear retailer Cabela’s, pulled out this year, while the Iditarod’s primary broadcast partner, the cable outlet Versus, failed to renew after televising the race the past four years. A host of other sponsors simply cut back, while the recently completed Vancouver Olympics added an extra layer of winter-sports overload. “It’s more than you want to absorb in one year,” says Hooley of the sponsor deficit.

Even the sport’s stars—many of whom have individual sponsorship deals, which they plaster NASCAR-style on their trucks, sleds, and gear—feel the pain. “Everything in this sport has gone up in price and the purses are going down,” says Fairbanks resident Mackey, who is gunning for an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory. “It makes it a little hard for the normal people or average kennel to make a living or succeed.” Burt Bomhoff, a former competitor who has held pretty much every board and executive position on the Iditarod organizing committee, sees escalating costs as a threat to the race’s iconic status. “It’s pricing sourdoughs out of the event,” complains Bomhoff, using a colloquial term for old-timers who raced for fun, not prize money.

The communities touched by the Iditarod have been struggling, too. Many of the rural villages that serve as checkpoints during the race – remote places with distant-sounding names like Nikolai, Tokatna, and McGrath – have experienced a debilitating outmigration in recent years, according to a 2008 report from the nonprofit Rural Alaska Community Action Program. Many of those that remain are elderly Alaska natives who have watched their local schools close and young people flee to urban areas for work. The population in tiny Nikolai, for example, about 100 miles west of Denali National Park, has dwindled from 150 to 75 over the last 25 years.

According to journalist Medred, these communities along the trail came into existence because of small-time mining, an industry that has died out. As the Iditarod has become more successful and grown in stature, checkpoint towns and villages have increasingly coveted a piece of the financial pie. But the sport is not big enough to provide that kind of manna. Plus, it takes masses of volunteers to pull off what is a logistically intense and expensive effort, with food drops at 20 or so checkpoints, air support to move people and equipment back and forth, and vets to make sure the dogs’ science-defying long-distance capabilities are still humming. “The Iditarod is a victim of the economy and a victim of 1,000 miles of wilderness,” says Medred, who this year will Twitter his way north for “What makes the race great makes it a logistical nightmare. It’s a dance in a wilderness minefield to try and survive with this thing.”

But the Iditarod’s problems have done little to dampen enthusiasm on the part of either spectators or mushers. The usual throng of 10,000-15,000 is expected to show up Saturday for Anchorage’s frozen version of Mardi Gras. Despite a $1,000 entry-fee hike to $4,000 (a fraction of the estimated $25,000-$30,000 it takes to train for and run the race), 71 mushers – four more than last year—will line up their teams of 16 dogs for the arduous journey.

State pride, respect for the race’s history and symbolism, and the thrill of attempting (or cheering on) the near-impossible, are why this hugely labor-intensive sport with little financial upside continues to be run by a handful of dedicated men and women. So, for a couple weeks this month, images of hard-working, dedicated canines and men with the Right Stuff will dance in the heads of Alaskans, spreading good vibes—regardless of the price of crude or the foibles of politicians.

Douglas Robson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco, California. He is the lead tennis writer for USA Today and has written about the Iditarod for the past three seasons.