ANCHORAGE, Alaska — No one who races sled dogs is going to get filthy rich any time soon, even if they win Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The prize for winning the sport’s premier race is only $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. That doesn’t even cover the annual dog food bill for many competitive mushers, who keep dozens of dogs in professional kennels geared to breed the sturdiest, fastest runners.
Many mushers rely on sponsors, part-time work and prizes from smaller races. Others work in seasonal jobs in tourism, construction and commercial fishing. They skimp on luxuries – one couple even hunts moose to keep food on the table.
It’s all to maintain a passion that is being played out this week in the Iditarod, which kicked off with a ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday. The competitive portion of the race started Sunday in Willow.
“I’ve got a hundred sled dogs. Each dog eats well over $1,000 worth of food every year,” said defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, who was in 11th place Wednesday. “The $50,000 cash prize covers half my food bill for the year, and that’s when you win the biggest race in the sport.”
Mushers can pick up a little cash along the way to the finish line in the frontier town of Nome on Alaska’s wind-scoured western coast.
They are rewarded for being the first to reach certain villages dotting the trail – including $3,000 in gold nuggets for being the first to arrive at the halfway checkpoint at the ghost town of Iditarod. Earlier in the race, a $500 air travel credit goes to the first musher to arrive at McGrath. That honor went to veteran musher Aaron Burmeister, who pulled into McGrath at 6:29 p.m. and left three minutes later.
Burmeister, of Nome, was in sixth place Wednesday as he took his mandatory 24-hour rest at the next checkpoint in the village of Takotna. In the lead was four-time champion Lance Mackey, who blew out of Ophir 23 miles past Takotna at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday to begin the
80-mile run to the next checkpoint at the ghost town of Iditarod. Mackey has not yet taken his 24-hour layover.
Before the race, Mackey said he has two major sponsors, one for dog food and another for clothing. The Fairbanks musher gets kibble and clothing from them. But he has to scrape by for the money he needs to maintain his 80-dog kennel and pay his dog handlers.
To do it right takes him at least $5,000 a month, he said. He hasn’t won the Iditarod since 2010, and has seen the number of sponsors drop off.
Mackey, who also has won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race four times, is doing what he loves, but doesn’t expect to ever acquire great wealth from it. No one does.
“There’s people like myself that try to make a living off of racing dogs,” Mackey said. “I’ve been as successful as anybody, and I’m still as broke as ever.”
Veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, who placed second in the Iditarod last year, shares adult racing dogs with her husband, Allen Moore, who won the Yukon Quest in February. Both are running in the Iditarod. Zirkle, who was in seventh place Wednesday, chose the top 16 dogs for her team while Moore is running a second team, more for the training of the dogs than to compete.
Their dogs get robust support from corporate and individual sponsors. Zirkle and Moore also strive to live debt-free. They built their own home in the interior Alaska community of Two Rivers. To keep food on the table, they hunt for moose each fall and have a garden in the summer.
“We are not broke,” Zirkle said. “But we don’t live high on the hog.”