ANCHORAGE – On March 2 at 10 a.m., 68 mushers and their dog teams will set out across 993 miles of rugged Alaska wilderness in a race that will test muscle, strategy and sheer will of human and canine competitors.
They’ll press on through dense forest, across frozen river and desolate tundra, along windswept coast – arguably one of the most challenging and beautiful landscapes in sports.
The landscape along the Iditarod trail is more than a race course for veteran Yup’ik musher Mike Williams Sr.; it’s part of his DNA. He and his son, fellow musher Mike Williams Jr., talk about the beauty of this ancestral route, of the Northern Lights moving in waves across the Alaska sky.
“When we get to Rohn and Rainy Pass [on the Iditarod course], that’s where my people used to hunt,” Williams Sr. said. “We’ve had dogs forever, for thousands of years. We’ve always had a special relationship with them and we’re going to continue to. Like our language and our culture, it’s a part of who we are.”
Mikhail Telpin, 59, Chukchi, of the indigenous Chukotka community of Yarankanot on the Bering Strait coast, cannot imagine life without his dogs.
“Sled dogs are part of our ancient culture in Chukotka — the oldest remains of sled dogs, bones more than 8,000 years old, have been found on our land in Alaska and across the Arctic region,” he said in his Iditarod bio.
“As a child on the tundra, the dogs took us hunting and transported us; that is still the way for me today … We hunt seal and walrus with the dogs, even travel across the tundra on steel runners when it is covered with grasses instead of snow during the summertime.”
This year’s field features nine mushers who keep alive the indigenous imprint on the Last Great Race on Earth.
Louie Ambrose, 42, Athabaskan, is racing the 2013 Iditarod in memory of his late father-in-law, Jerry Austin, who had six top 10 finishes in 18 Iditarods between 1976 and 1996. This is Ambrose’s first Iditarod; on Jan. 17, he finished 20th of 21 racers in the highly-regarded Kuskokwim 300, for many mushers a test run leading up to the Last Great Race.
John Baker, 50, Inupiat, won the hearts of Native Alaska in the 2011 Iditarod when he shattered the race record by three hours and became the first Inupiat champion in the event’s history. He was the first Alaska Native to win the race since Jerry Riley, Athabaskan, in 1976. Baker, who finished ninth in 2012, has 13 top-10 finishes in 17 races.
Josh Cadzow, 23, Gwich’in, scratched in the 2012 Iditarod, his first, “because his team wasn’t enjoying the trip,” the Iditarod press office reported at the time. He said in his Iditarod bio: “I entered the Iditarod to finish with all my dogs healthy and roaring to keep on going when the race is over.” He has some decent experience under his belt, including a seventh-place finish in the 2010 Yukon Quest and an eighth-place finish in this year’s Kuskokwim 300.
Rudy Demoski Sr., 67, Athabaskan, returns to the race for the first time since 1985. He raced six times between 1974 and 1985, placing fourth in his rookie year and ninth the next year. “I missed training dogs for the past 27 years,” he said in his race bio. “I have been thinking about running again for several years, especially when I see some of my friends racing. I obtained sponsorship this year and decided since I wasn’t getting any younger, this is the time to go.”
Richie Diehl, 27, Yup’ik, is racing in his first Iditarod. He has a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and is a carpenter by trade. But he began mushing as a child and has been racing competitively in Alaska since 2010. He’s raced in four Kuskokwim 300s, and finishing fourth in 2012 and winning the Best in the West award.
Peter Kaiser, 25, Yup’ik, is a formidable competitor, finishing ninth and fifth in the 2011 and 2012 Iditarods and third in the 2013 Kuskokwim 300. “Our family has always had dogs, and I’ve been mushing since I was a kid,” Kaiser said in his Iditarod bio. “Watching the Kuskokwim 300 every January sparked my interest in long-distance racing, and a few years ago, I decided that I would give the Iditarod a try.”
Mikhail Telpin is an Iditarod rookie but raced in the 2012 Yukon Quest and the 2013 Kuskokwim 300. He’s a member of Racing Berengia, three sled dog teams racing the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod, and, in Chukotka, the Nadezhda Hope Race.
“Team Racing Beringia [has] a free online education program live at RacingBeringia.com,” Telpin said in his race bio. “Our team has set out to explore and run the great races of the Beringia region with both Chukchi and Alaskan Husky dogs.” Beringia is a region stretching from Chukotka and Kamchatka in Russia to Alaska in the United States.
Mike Williams Sr., 62, Yup’ik, has one of the more diverse backgrounds of Iditarod mushers. He played linebacker and running back for Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, studied counseling at Kuskokwim College and the University of Alaska, served in the U.S. Army, and was regional vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Williams Sr. has raced the Iditarod 14 times since 1992. His best finish was 18th in 1997 and he was Most Inspirational Musher in 1992 and 1998, chosen by finishers. He is racing this year to promote sobriety.
Williams Jr., 27, has used mushing to call attention to efforts to prevent teen suicide. He too is a formidable competitor: He finished eighth in the 2012 Iditarod, crossing the line 2 minutes 20 seconds after former champ Mitch Seavey, who has 10 top-10 finishes in his Iditarod career. Williams Jr. also finished second in the 2011 Kuskokwim 300 and won that race’s Best of the West award in 2010 and 2011.
Team Williams is part of a field of competitors that is as tough as the race itself. This year, the field includes seven Iditarod champions: Dallas Seavey (2012), John Baker (2011), Lance Mackey (2010, 2009, 2009, 2007), Jeff King (2006, 1998, 1996, 1993), Mitch Seavey (2004), Martin Buser (2002, 1997, 1994, 1992), and Rick Swenson (1991, 1982, 1981, 1979, 1977).