Sunday, June 26, 2022

Iditarod Picnic and Musher Sign Ups

Saturday marked the unofficial start of the race season as volunteers and mushers gathered in Wasilla for the annual Iditarod picnic at the Race Headquarters. Unlike previous years, the picnic was sparsely attended by fans and mushers alike. Normally one could guarantee bumping into the biggest names of North American mushing past and present. Names like Dick Mackey, Raymie Redington, and Dan Seavey were a shoo in for the "old timers" who came to swap stories with each other (almost always the same trail stories they've shared for nearly fifty years), while names like Jeff King, Martin Buser, and Mitch Seavey kept people guessing if the "old dogs" had another win in them.

Instead, only one previous champion signed up Saturday - and did so via the web from a beach somewhere warm. Only 21 teams in total would be on the roster by the end of the day. While those in attendance joked that the low attendance of mushers would give those signing up a greater chance to win their entry fee back, there was a definite air of uncertainty about the event.

Also noticeably absent was Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach. Since joining the Iditarod in 2018, Urbach has attended every public event. The enthusiastic leader often hyped up the next season promising new ways to jump into the 21st century. Yet this year it was once again Chaz St. George as the face of the Iditarod at the event, and he quickly just thanked attendees before breezing through the musher drawings without going through the traditional announcement of number of sign ups and reading down the list.

Discussion of the day was obviously the lack of those signing up. Karin Hendrickson attended the picnic but did not sign up with a sigh suggesting there were too many unknowns for her to be sure she'd race this season. Hendrickson also pointed to financial insecurity being a big reason for a lot of teams. She was overheard saying that she knew of "at least" five kennels "getting out of dogs" because they could not afford to continue to keep up a kennel.

2018 Iditarod Champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom did not attend the picnic, but as the event rolled on those checking Facebook read the announcement the Norwegian made stating he was stepping back from long distance racing to focus on his "beautiful little family" and figuring out the "elusive Kuskokwim 300 win." Both five-time Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey and Iditafan favorite Aaron Burmeister announced at the end of this year's race they, too, are taking time off for family both having children getting to the age of having their own interests outside of dad running Iditarod.

Iditarod 50 was a huge accomplishment for the race, and while fans felt that the race did not do enough to celebrate the milestone, it feels like this is a new wave for the race as a whole. It may be fitting that so many of the mushers that made the last fifty years memorable are absent at the beginning of the next fifty. It's clear that the race has changed a great deal from when Joe Redington and his merry band of mushing enthusiasts came up with the hairbrained idea that dogs could travel a thousand miles over an overgrown yet historic trail system. Today it's a streamlined machine of a race that travels in almost a blink of an eye.

Even with the quieter picnic, there were still many smiles and reasons to laugh and celebrate. With so few mushers needing their Iditarod picture for their website bios, Official Photographer (who is "retired" but still on hand to help) Jeff Schultz was mobbed several times by race fans asking for autographs to sign his work. Kristy Berington and Andy Pohl rode through the picnic on their tandem bike before returning a little while later with Anna to sign the Seeing Double racing kennel teams up for another go (Andy, of course, was there to take the photos). 

Jason Mackey was so excited to be able to sign up again that he showed up well before sign ups opened at 9:30am. The team that [wo]man the table said he was there before they showed up to set things up. Mackey, of course, is hoping to keep the family tradition of winning the Iditarod alive. Mackey's father Dick won the Iditarod, and then Jason's brothers Rick and Lance are also Iditarod champions. If Mackey draws bib number 13 at the musher's banquet this year you might as well just give him the win (Dick, Rick, and Lance all won their [in Lance's case first] Iditarods with the number).

Matthew Failor and Dan Kaduce both signed up - in part because they won a free entry fee for being the "Most Inspirational" (Matt) and winner of the "Humanitarian Award" (Dan). Liz Failor was on hand to snap photos of husband Matthew as well as give tips to KattiJo Deeter on how to fill out her application. That's right, last year's rookie who got stuck in a terrible storm and ended up scratching, KattiJo (who explained that it's "Katie Jo" but that her mother "was a terrible speller") Deeter is returning for another go at the belt buckle. Deeter proclaimed she would be very jealous if she hit that portion of trail and it was calm as "the first time rookies won't have to go through [what she did]!" Deeter was also having a hard time coming up with an answer for her occupation and her hobbies. There were plenty of peanut gallery members to help her out, however. Husband Jeff was on hand to swipe the credit card. 

At this time, only one team from Black Spruce Kennel will run this coming Iditarod. Jeff noted that the logistics "back home" are just too much with the both of them out on the trail and that when he races KattiJo "takes care of so much". He didn't say 100% absolutely not that he wouldn't run, but did stick to "at this time" there were no plans to run two teams like they did in 2022.

Overall, while the roster is Yukon Quest roster sized, fans should expect it to grow some before the end of the year (when the deadline to sign up is). There should be a lot of excitement as many of the teams that are often knocking on the door to get into the top ten will have a great chance of improving (in some cases drastically). Will Brent Sass be able to hold off the teams ready to make sure he doesn't repeat? Who has the best chance of taking home the prize? Those questions are being asked far too soon. The better question is - who do you think has plans to sign up but wants to keep us guessing for now?

To see all of my photos from the day you can view my facebook album.

Make sure to subscribe to Mushing Radio's podcasts as we'll be talking this week all about the Iditarod picnic and what it all means for the future of The Last Great Race.