Climate Change Is Rerouting World-Famous Sled Dog Race

In Alaska, a warm winter is hurting hunting, transportation — and the Iditarod

Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic
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A sled dog team, seen from a plane, heads out of the first checkpoint and toward the second. 
Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic

Every year, the sleepy 2,000 person town of Willow, Alaska is inundated with visitors eager to observe—or partake in—“the Last Great Race on Earth.”

This year, a worrisome new tradition for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race persisted. In 2003, the race route had to be moved from its usual starting point in Willow to Fairbanks because the winter hadn’t provided enough snow for good racing terrain. It was moved again in 2015. This year, a month before the race, officials decided to relocate a third time after determining that snow in three or four sections of the track was not sufficient.

"We're going through some major changes with the environment," Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman told a press conference. "We have more willow and brush than we've seen in years.”

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Sled dogs stay warm and rested in their dog trucks. Before the race’s official start, a ceremonial run occurs in Anchorage.

For photographer Katie Orlinsky, the Iditarod’s route is just the latest victim of climate change in Alaska. Over the past few years, she has documented how changing animal migration routes are hurting hunters and previously frozen rivers are moving transportation routes. Now, climate change has hit the classic Alaskan event. “The race is going to have to keep changing in order to survive because it's getting so warm in Alaska,” says Orlinsky, who documented the Iditarod for National Geographic. “Some people think it might be relocated indefinitely."

But the new location didn’t dampen the spirits of the racers, known as mushers. On March 6, 72 teams launched through a 1,000-mile course to the finish line in Nome. From the multi-generational families of mushers with their own kennels to hobbyists who rent a team, the extreme sport attracts a mix of participants, all steering teams of 12 to 16 dogs. (Read "5 Surprising Facts About the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.")

This year, 57-year-old Mitch Seavey was the latest winner in a family tradition of record-breaking finishes. He completed the race in 8 days, 3 hours, and 40 minutes—the fastest dog team the Iditarod has ever seen. He broke the previous record, which was set by his son last year, by nearly 8 hours. This year, four-time champion Dallas Seavey came in second. The pair—who do not discuss race strategies—have won the past five races.

"I will never let him win," Mitch Seavey told the Alaska Dispatch News before the start. ”I will flight him tooth and nail to the finish line." Mitch’s father, Dan Seavey, helped launch the first ever Iditarod in 1973, and came in third that year with a runtime of 20 days, 14 hours, and 35 minutes.

“The race community is social and a family in a sense,” says Orlinsky. “You've got all the drama of sports, but it's a niche.” The characters involved are so unique that a few times, while waiting to capture a shot, she caught herself casting the Iditarod’s version of classic dog breeder parody movie Best in Show in her head.

The race can be stressful for its human participants—and the journalists following them: Orlinsky got little sleep and fewer showers while flying in and out of checkpoints along the trail, sleeping on school floors, and trailing teams by snowmobile in 40 degrees below Fahrenheit. The race can be even more brutal to its canine participants: Four dogs died this year, the most since 2009, when six perished in the race.

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A musher from Idaho arrives at the checkpoint in Manley. Teams can choose to rest or carry on once reaching a checkpoint.

Nordman told the Alaska Dispatch News that their deaths would be investigated. "It's a saddening time,” he said. "It’s the worst that we can deal with.” Dogs who are tired or injured are left behind with veterinarians along the route and then evacuated back to their kennels.

Ever since a musher attempted to run the race with standard poodles, only northern breeds, like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes, are allowed to race. (Read about the history of sled dogs.)

Despite the deaths, the race is seen as a way to maintain appreciation of the dogs.

“It's such an important part of their heritage up north,” says Orlinsky.

The Iditarod trail was first used to bring settlers into Alaska's gold fields, and then for supplies and mail to travel between towns. These missions sometimes carried lifesaving equipment to remote areas only accessible by dog sled. (In 1925, a 150-dog relay team brought medical supplies to Nome, which had been crippled by a diphtheria epidemic.) But by the late 1960s, the sleds and their husky runners had been replaced by airplanes and snowmobiles. Two Alaskans—a local history buff and a U.S. Air Force rescuer—launched a sled dog race to commemorate the trail and bring attention to the dogs.

The current route was inaugurated in 1973 by 22 mushers. One of the founders, Joe Redington, went on to race 19 times, never winning before his death in 1999. To this day, his name is called during every Iditarod Trail Board meeting, and he's always excused for being "on the trail.”

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As seen from a plane, a dog team races through frozen tundra. The all-volunteer Iditarod Air Force fleet has some of the best pilots in Alaska to make the logistically complex race possible.