Despite financial challenges, 26 mushers already planning for 2024 Iditarod

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Published: Jun. 24, 2023 at 9:22 PM AKDT
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WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) - Registration for the 2024 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began at Wasilla’s race headquarters Saturday with 26 mushers signing up by late afternoon.

After a record low number of mushers competed in this year’s race, many who follow the sport were curious how many would commit to the challenge in 2024. The field will see the return of perennial frontrunners Nic Petit, Jessie Royer, and Brent Sass in addition to at least four rookies. Previous champs Dallas Seavey will challenge for a record-breaking sixth race win, while Ryan Redington hopes to repeat his 2023 success.

Saturday’s picnic wasn’t just for mushers — it’s a way for the Alaska mushing community to celebrate the hardworking volunteers who break trail, run race checkpoints, and take care of the Iditarod’s canine athletes. The afternoon of canine-based camaraderie included a barbecued lunch, prize raffles, and even a ride in a dog-driven cart, in addition to building excitement for the next running of the Last Great Race.

“It’s really exciting to be here, just to be with all the other mushers,” Burke said.

Despite rising costs of living, at least 26 mushers have signed up to run a race with an entry fee of $4,000. Mushers have been known to spend upwards of $80,000 a year just outfitting their teams and keeping them healthy. In addition to the cost of equipment and dogs used in the race, mushers also have to pay for the costs to fly their dogs back to Anchorage from Nome, which runs $1,500. Supplying a team with enough dog booties to run a 10-day race can cost up to $5,000 according to one musher. Even dwindling salmon stock in the Yukon has an effect on a racing kennel’s bottom line.

“We make little to no money, it goes right back into the kennel,” Burke said.

Race officials announced on June 16 that the purse for the upcoming race would be increased by $50,000 — making for a total of $574,000 in prize money. It won’t make a huge difference for many mushers, but every little bit helps.

“We all love this sport, we want to keep it going. We know how difficult it is to maintain this lifestyle and a kennel. To just put a team in Iditarod and get to the starting line is extremely difficult, so I think we need that community and that support.”

Some dog team owners choose to support their lifestyle by renting their dogs out to those who don’t have their own kennels or teams. Others rent their dogs out for the summer, allowing the athletes to train while also treating tourists to dogsled rides atop glaciers or deep in the Interior. But some, like Burke, choose to give their teams a break.

“I give them the summers off, let them hang out and have fun, so I won’t really see what they’re about until I start training in September,” Burke said. “I really like to give them the summers off, I think it’s mentally really good for them, physically it’s really good for them. It keeps it fun for them.”

Even as a rookie, Burke was welcomed into the highest level of the sport by mushers who understand the challenges — and not just the financial ones.

“Everybody in the mushing community’s great. Since I started, people have been really supportive and welcoming, I think I’ve gotten that from the start and. They’ve encouraged me to keep going — ‘yeah, start up your own kennel, go for it!’ so it’s nice to have that support.”

Burke says that support, as well as the financial backing of sponsors, is what helps to keep it alive in the face of adversity.

“Without it, there’s no way I could afford this out of pocket. I work hard for a living — but I don’t make that kind of money.”

Entries for the 2024 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will be open until 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30. The races ceremonial start is planned to for March 3 in Downtown Anchorage.