Defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey drives his team as he arrives first into the Unalakleet, Alaska, checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 15, 2009. Only 33 mushers will participate in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod on Saturday, March 4, the smallest field ever to take their dog teams nearly 1,000 miles over Alaska's unforgiving wilderness. Credit: Al Grillo / AP

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Brent Sass was just miles from fulfilling his dream of winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska when vicious, 60-mph winds whipsawed in from the Bering Sea, taking visibility down to about 10 feet and forcing him off his sled as his dogs hunkered down in the snow.

“I did not voluntarily make that stop,” laughed Sass, who was seeking his first Iditarod victory last year but had five-time champion Dallas Seavey just a few miles behind him. “We got blown off the trail and it took me an hour to get all my stuff back together and figure out where I was.”

Sass regrouped and led his team of 11 dogs off the Bering Sea ice and down Nome’s main street to the iconic burled arch finish line, winning the Iditarod, the world’s most famous sled dog race, in his seventh attempt.

Sass is back to defend his title in the race, which begins Saturday with a fan-friendly 11-mile jaunt through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Thousands of people are expected to line up to cheer on the mushers, who carry “Iditariders,” lucky auction winners, on their sleds for the ceremonial start.

Things get serious Sunday with the competitive start of the race that will take mushers nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska. It begins in Willow, about 70 miles north of Anchorage.

This is the 51st running of the Iditarod, but its 33 mushers are the smallest field ever to start the race. Mushers and race organizers point to the retirement of some veteran mushers; others taking a break to recoup financially after the pandemic; inflation, and the loss of deep-pocketed sponsors amid continuing pressure from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA took out full-page newspaper ads in Alaska’s two largest cities decrying what it calls the cruel abuse of dogs forced to haul their mushers and gear over the race’s thousand miles. The group also staged a protest outside the mushers’ annual banquet Thursday.

Six mushers who account for 18 Iditarod championships are not racing this year. Last year, the sport lost another four-time winner when Lance Mackey died of cancer. Mackey was named honorary musher for this year’s race.

Only 823 mushers have reached the finish line in the Iditarod’s first half-century, and only 24 individual mushers in all have won the grueling event. Mushers and their dog teams encounter some of the harshest conditions in untamed Alaska, crossing both the Alaska and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, mushing on the frozen Yukon River, trekking through monotonous flat tundra and navigating the treacherous Bering Sea ice.

Along the way, they stop in numerous, largely Alaska Native communities that serve as checkpoints.

“It’s a celebration of spring for villages all across the state. It kind of brings communities and people together for an event that celebrates the history of our state and dog mushing,” said Aaron Burmeister, an Iditarod musher who grew up watching the race end in his hometown of Nome and who finished in the top 10 eight times over the last decade.

Climate change has and will likely continue to play a role in how the race is run.

The warming climate forced organizers to move the starting line 290 miles north from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015 and 2017 because of a lack of snow in the Alaska Range. That will become more common as the weather warms, and the Bering Sea ice leading into Nome could also become thinner and more dangerous, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Challenges to the globe’s foremost sled dog race are mounting, said Bob Dorfman, a sports branding expert with Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.

“With the high expenses, the low payout, dwindling sponsorship support, PETA pressure, the danger of it all, it feels more like a trend than just an anomaly,” he said. Sass earned $50,000 for winning last year’s race.

Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach says the race is financially healthy, and he expects the Iditarod to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2073.

Dorfman did not disagree, but said the 2073 race may not look that much different than this year’s race.

“I don’t see the fortunes changing that much,” Dorfman said. “I don’t know that it’s going to be more than 30 participants.”

Sass, 43, is considered the front-runner to win the 2023 race. Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik and fifth Alaska Native to win the race, is the field’s only other ex-champion.

The winner is expected in Nome about nine or 10 days after Saturday’s start.

Story by Mark Thiessen