The end of November brings thoughts of sled dog racing. If you live in the Fairbanks area or near Willow, it’s common to see a team of dogs running along the side of the road.
Snow has arrived in most parts of the state and although the ice is still a bit fragile, most dog trainers have safe trails. There are dog teams preparing for the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, but not as much as before.
The Yukon Quest and Iditarod are considered the world’s premier long-distance races. The 1,000 mile running distance, along with the perceived loneliness and obstacles of the trail, captures the public’s imagination. These things also bring newbie mushers to the races, eager to partake in the mystique of the North.
Veteran mushers, though they share the same feelings, face the harsh reality of having a team of 14 huskies on the trail. The more competitive you are, the higher the cost. A few years ago I calculated the base cost of the Quest and the Iditarod. The numbers I found were $15,000 for the Iditarod and around $10,000 for the Yukon Quest.
These figures only include the actual and immediate costs of the race. They do not include the training costs associated with the race, nor the costs of maintaining a team of dogs for the other 11 months of the year. In the past, these costs were not necessarily relevant because people already had dogs in their yards. They kept or used dogs regardless of races.
Most mushers today keep a relatively large dog park with the primary goal of racing. Dear. That’s why there aren’t many dog teams left in Bush communities. A 50 pound bag of junk dog food is going to have a $50 bill added as freight. The result is that off-road teams have to feed their dogs plenty of fish to make ends meet. Fish, salmon and whitefish, are very good dog foods, but they are not stand-alone foods for the Alaskan racing husky.
The increased nutritional requirements of a racing sled dog are well documented. A pound of salmon with 900 calories per pound cannot compete with a commercial breed food with double the calorie count. A few Bush teams are able to overcome these obstacles, including teams from hubs like Bethel, Kotzebue and Nome. Some of these mushers are well funded by sponsors and are willing to devote a great deal of their personal resources to their addiction.
However, their number is decreasing. In most years prior to 2010, there were between 90 and 100 teams participating in the Quest and Iditarod combined. So far, only 70 teams have signed up for the 2020 races. It’s the lowest combined total since the 1980s.
Registration for the quest closed Friday evening at midnight. There are 17 people registered, the lowest number in the history of the race. Registration for the Iditarod closes on Monday, and as of Saturday, 53 teams were registered. Last year, 52 teams left the starting line.
Some have suggested the low numbers are due to pressure from anti-mushing groups. I do not agree. The economy rules the world and nothing is more fundamental than feeding a dog park. If there are 50 dogs in a yard. that means $37,000 in gardening expenses. This does not include race fees.
The Yukon Quest has a scholarship of $100,000. He pays $19,000 to the winner and $3,700 for 10th place. Draw these numbers in pencil.
The Iditarod has a decent purse of $500,000. He pays $22,000 for 10th place. It doesn’t cover kennel fees, but at least it recovers the direct cost of the ride.
Another factor that may come into play, although difficult to quantify, is the decreasing number of people willing to take on the commitment of owning a sled dog group. Sled dogs are a way of life requiring full-time involvement. You can’t have 40 dogs today and decide next summer that you don’t want any more. There aren’t many homes for unwanted sled dogs. Dogs are bought and sold, but we’re talking about a fairly small number, and most dog trades are usually for serious racers.
The next time a team of dogs comes through your car window or you see them racing on TV, consider the sacrifice mushers make to provide us with this entertainment.
And it’s not just entertainment. It is the preservation of an era that we cannot afford to lose in the age of fast food and the artificial plastic world of electronics.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.