With the cold of night settling over the Alaska Range Sunday and flowing down the Yentna River drainage into Susitna Valley, a long line of cyclists, runners and a few skiers were rolling, jog/walking and skating north along the Iditarod Trail on their adventures of a lifetime.
Over the Range to the north, in the big valley of the Kuskokwim River draining the vast and deserted Interior of the 49th state all the way to the Bering Sea to the west, more were straggling toward the village of Nikolai or on to the tiny regional outpost of McGrath.
All were part of what has become a winter growth industry in Alaska: adventure sport.
Iditarod Trail Invitational race director Kathi Merchant says she could now easily field 100 racers if the Bureau of Land Management would give her a permit to put that many on the trail. The race is limited to 70, and she has been turning people away.
The ITI is the human-powered race with the longest continuous run on the Iditarod Trail, but demand for Iditarod adventures is such that the Iditasport, the event that started it all, was resurrected in recent years. A budget-based affair, it sent about 40 people north on the trail last week.
A little over three-days later, Kevin Murphy, bike mechanic from Backcountry Bike and Ski in Palmer, AK, pedaled his fatbike into McGrath to claim the traditional 350-mile victory. The winner of the ITI race to McGrath, which left Knik Lake on Sunday, is expected to take about the same amount of time.
Some of the competitors in both races keep going the full 1,000 miles to Nome, but the arduous trek through the wild and empty Alaska Range and then across the Farewell Lakes country to the north and on to McGrath is enough for most adventurers.
For years now, they have been coming from around the world in ever-increasing numbers to challenge the Alaska wilderness in events that are within the economic reach of normal people.
Alaska’s 2,000-mile Iron Dog – the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world – ended Saturday in Fairbanks amid a bit of television fanfare after a week-long run up the Iditarod Trail to Nome and then back east to Fairbanks.
It attracted 68 riders.
The Iditarod has about as many entrants as the Iron Dog.
A big part of the impediment to growing in either event is cost. If you want to enter the sled-dog or snowmachine race, it’s a good idea to have a big pile of money or, in the case of Iditarod, the willingness to sign on for a winter or two as an indentured servant, also known as being a dog handler.
The state’s handful of top, competitive mushers seem to be regularly looking for someone to run a second-string dog team to Nome for training. It is possible to work your way onto the runners of an Iditarod sled.
The Iron Dog is the easier cheaper event to enter.
An Iron Dog-capable sled will set you back $13,000 to $15,000, but you’re probably going to want two. One to bash to pieces in training, the other for the race.
Gas for training will cost at least a few thousands dollars. Figure in machine modifications, spare parts, and other gear, plus the $3,800 “pro class” entry fee, and you’re probably looking at costs around $50,000.
There is a lower, “recreational class,” entry fee of $2,400, and you might be able to do the rec class, which is basically a tour, for as little as $20,000 if – of course – the entry fee doesn’t jump next year.
The Iron Dog is facing serious financial problems. Sponsorship dollars lagged behind race costs this year. The organization’s newly hired executive director quit amidst budget struggles. And the event was forced to pull together a major volunteer effort to see through the 2018 race.
The basic economic problem is simple. Iron Dog faces the same issue as the Iditarod: big logistical costs. Setting up remote checkpoints and seeing to it that they have fuel and oil for the machines is pricey.
And the ‘Dog faces a another problem similar to the Iditarod.
It’s a race in far-off-Alaska run primarily for Alaskans, in some part because of the added costs of getting here from elsewhere and in some part because Alaska intimidates many riders from the Lower 48.
The Iditarod Trail is not a North Shore Minnesota groomed trail ride. There are a lot of serious obstacles to overcome. It is not without reason that Lower 48 riders shy away.
Few Outside riders, however, translates into little Outside media coverage and thus little appeal to Outside sponsors. In-state sponsors, meanwhile, are hard to find given the older, more prestigious, better organized and internationally known dog race which sucks up much of the money even though the state is home to far more sledheads than dog mushers.
No easy trail
But the sled-dog race needs money. With tons of straw, dog food, human food and people to fly to checkpoints along the Iditarod – and dropped dogs needing to be flown back – the sled dog race faces even higher logistical costs than the Iron Dog, and fundraising opportunities are limited in a state with a population smaller than that of Charlotte, N.C.
Regularly since its inception, the sled dog race has struggled through major financial difficulties. It is now fraught with problems both from outside – animal rights activists have scared off some national sponsors and are threatening protests for this year’s start of the race – and inside – a consultancy has warned the board of directors that the organization is losing the faith of both sponsors and mushers.
The so-called Foraker report to the board did not mention fans, but they might represent the race’s biggest problem. The revenue report for the Iditarod’s pay-per-view, online, race coverage would indicate it only has about 20,000 diehard fans.
Controversy and a mystery rocked the race this year when 30-year-old, four-time champ Dallas Seavey was accused of arriving in Nome with doped dogs. He said he didn’t feed the dope and claimed sabotage.
Nobody really knows what happened. Most of the race is run in vast wilderness largely unseen. Seavey appears to have the means, motive and opportunity to do the dope, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been sabotaged.
The mystery, the dispute and the hub-hub have that have grown up around it all would have been expected to attract a fair bit of interest, but the curiosity appears to have been muted. As this is written, the YouTube web counter says 55,006 people have viewed Seavey’s animated claim to innocence.
Other sled dog videos – pro Iditarod and con – don’t traffic much better. The video for the trailer for “Sled Dogs,” the mushing-critical movie, got about the same number of views as Seavey. The only sled-dog related video to attract much attention was old, four-time Jeff King’s GoPro footage of his team bashing and banging through a new snowless Dalzell Gorge in 2014.
Shot four years ago, it has now been seen by 232,040 people, according to the YouTube counter. The three-year-old German Darts Championship video of a match between Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson, two men of whom most of the world has never heard, has been viewed by 889,827.
The King-filmed Iditarod ride through the snow short mountains was hard on dog sleds, a lot of them broke, and people, a few of them broke, but not on the dogs. Watching Kings video, the dogs almost seem to be relishing putting the driver through hell.
And the ride did make for some pretty dramatic video. The Iditarod’s answer to this was to move the race restart to Fairbanks and stage an event largely on the frozen rivers of the state’s Interior flatlands.
The result was not exactly a made-for-TV (or video) event in a society all about action.
Not that the Iditarod is likely to die for lack of eyeballs. Despite the wishes of animal-rights activists, it is unlikely the Iditarod is ever going to die.
A now world-famous event rich in history and romance, the race has a comparatively small but solid core of diehard fans and continues to attract attention as one of the world’s great sporting challenges. Only about 800 people have ever completed the event.
Getting a dog team to Nome is not nearly as easy as it might look on video. A snowmachine ride is easier, though not exactly easy. But the Iditarod retains the romance.
That will always attract a few people with money and a taste for the different, and some who just like hanging out with dogs. But the race does appear to be past its peak.
From its start in 1973, the average number of entrants per decade grew steadily through the ’80s and ’90s and into the 2000s. The average number of participants for the 2010s now lags behind the earlier decade, the first hint of an Iditarod downturn.
In this context, the changing demographics of the U.S. and the world cannot be ignored. Both have become increasingly more urban decade by decade.
The latest estimate by the World Bank is that about 82 percent of U.S. residents live in an urban area. That tracks a global trend that has seen the move to the cities and suburbs skyrocket since the 1960s.
In the suburbs, it’s hard to keep even a smallish four- or five-dog team without the neighbors getting upset. It’s virtually impossible in the city itself.
It’s easy to keep a fatbike or a pair of running shoes. And people who go adventuring usually do it with the equipment they know. If you’re headed into the Alaska wilds, it simply makes more sense to take the bike you know how to ride and how to fix rather than invest in a pricey snowmachine about which they know nothing, or a string of dogs that could do anything.
Strip the Alaska outdoor adventure scene of the all the glamour and romance bestowed on the Iditarod, and the adrenaline rush of punching the throttle on a 2018 snowmobile (if there’s not at least a little motorhead in you, you’re probably not a real Alaskan), to give some serious consideration to the tourism economics of the future, and the human-powered Iditarod races looks to be where the participatory business will be found going forward.
These races already attract more competitors from the population centers of the Lower 48 and Europe than the sled dog and Iron dog races combined, and they are closing in on attracting more entrants in total than the bigger, better-known events combined.
Along the Iditarod Trail this week, if you’re traveling in the most-common Alaska way by snowmachine and stop to talk to the people on bikes or on foot, you’ll find them conversant in French, Spanish, German, Italian and English with just about every accent imaginable.
In a state that has long talked about winter tourism, winter tourism seems to have coming knocking at the door in ways few expected. Will the ITI ever evolve into a Tour de Alaska Range with the spectator draw of the Iditarod?
Probably not, but then again one has wonder how long the Iditarod will continue to be the spectator draw it has been in the past. There are a lot of unknowns here. The race start will probably always be a good excuse for people to get along the trails in Anchorage and party, but beyond that…?
Ask Alaskans these days, and a lot of them will say they catch the start of the race in Anchorage and the finish in Nome and between, well, not so much. Most of the adventure is gone from the Iditarod. It’s now just a race with not much to see, especially when it avoids the Alaska Range with the race’s most spectacular scenery.
One has to wonder, too, about what wildcards technology could throw into the mix going forward. Imagine an Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race on the streets of the state’s largest city reinvigorated with a Jumbotron video screen or two on Fourth Avenue downtown and some video-equipped drones to track fast-moving sprint teams as they maneuver through town out into the wooded Campbell Tract and back.
As a spectator sport, sprint-dog racing faded and nearly died in Anchorage because it was out of touch with the short attention spans of our time. It just isn’t all that exciting to go downtown, watch a bunch of dog teams speed off the avenue, and then hang around for an hour or so doing nothing while waiting for them to speed back.
But if the on-trail action could be beamed back to viewing venues downtown, maybe even to the smartphones of people along city trails, who knows how things might change.
Anyone who watched the television coverage of Alaskan Kikkan Randall and ski partner Jesse Diggins winning gold in the Olympic Nordic ski sprints with a performance the Kansas City Star, not exactly a paper in the heartland of cross-country, called “electrifying” got a taste of how technology can take spectators closer to the action and heighten the experience.
The use of video to bring spectators into the sport is the reason biathlon draws big television audiences in Europe. It’s all in the way the show is packaged. When it comes to spectator sport circa 2020 and beyond, Fur Rondy might have more opportunities than Iditarod.
But when it comes to participant sports, there’s no doubt about the growth market. The big jump in traffic on the Iditarod Trail in recent years has come with an increase in people on foot and bikes, and that appears destined to continue.