The 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off Sunday in Willow.
But concerns about COVID-19 have made for a drastically different competition this year.
There’s required testing and face masks, plus a shorter trail and a smaller group of mushers signed up to compete.
It’s set to be an Iditarod like no other.
Here’s what to know about the 2021 race.
When will the Iditarod start?
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 7, at Deshka Landing in Willow, about 90 minutes north of Anchorage.
Iditarod officials say spectators can’t watch from Deshka Landing, because of COVID-19 concerns. But people can still snowmachine out to see teams go by farther down the trail.
Alaska’s News Source and the Iditarod will also broadcast the race start live.
As for the ceremonial start in Anchorage? That’s canceled. So are the many other in-person events usually held in the lead-up to the race, like the musher banquet.
What’s different about the race trail this year?
It’s shorter, it doesn’t end in Nome and it passes through fewer Alaska communities.
The Iditarod is calling it the “Gold Trail Loop.”
The 850-mile route goes from Willow, out to the ghost town of Flat and then back to Willow.
That means teams will cross the Alaska Range twice this year, but will avoid the windy Bering Sea coast.
Iditarod race director Mark Nordman described trail conditions as snowy.
“We’ve got really good snow,” he said last week. “Lots of snow.”
What about the race checkpoints? Where are mushers stopping to rest?
The race wants to keep interaction between mushers and local residents “to an absolute minimum,” said Nordman.
Already, the new out-and-back trail means more race checkpoints will be located near remote lodges and in ghost towns.
In some locations, the race will set up large tents big enough for multiple mushers to rest in, said Nordman. That includes in the village of Nikolai, where mushers can sleep in the tents instead of inside the village’s school, like they normally would.
Further down the trail, the race is completely bypassing the community of Takotna, usually a popular checkpoint where mushers can feast on an array of pies baked by residents.
Nordman said he expects many mushers will opt to rest away from others during the race, and near their dog teams.
“I think you’ll see a lot of people camping out,” he said. “If you’re in a tent with four or five different mushers, why not just sleep out with your dogs?”
In McGrath, the most populated community along this year’s trail, there will be a non-tent option: Mushers can stay in an airplane hangar.
Will mushers get tested for COVID-19 during the race?
Yes, several times.
According to the Iditarod’s coronavirus prevention plan, mushers must get tested for COVID-19 two weeks before the race.
Then, they’ll get tested at least four more times: On Thursday in Anchorage, at the race start in Willow, when they get to McGrath and at the race finish.
Race staff and volunteers will go through a similar series of tests and screenings.
The race can do more than 5,000 tests, said Iditarod chief executive Rob Urbach.
What happens if mushers test positive?
If mushers get a positive result on a rapid test, they’ll be given a molecular test.
If they’re positive on that test too, they’re out of the race and must isolate.
According to the Iditarod’s plan, staff will sanitize the area and test anyone who has been in close contact with the infected person.
What other COVID-19 protocols are in place?
The Iditarod has strict limitations on who can go into checkpoints this year.
Normally, many checkpoint areas are often brimming with reporters, race staff, vets and others following the trail. Local residents also often gather at the checkpoint buildings, and bring food to share.
But this year, Urbach said, “we’ve got down to just mission-critical folks.”
The race is creating a “checkpoint bubble” for staff, volunteers and some media, such as the Iditarod Insider, Urbach said.
Those in the bubble must go through the COVID-19 testing protocols and follow other social-distancing and sanitation rules.
The idea, Urbach said, is to ensure everyone in the bubble has tested negative for COVID-19 before the race begins, and then to keep them isolated from others.
“We’re doing as much as we can to protect our traveling ecosystem along the way,” Urbach said.
The race will also have more than a dozen EMTs on the trail this year.
“They’ll essentially serve as our COVID testers, our COVID police, our COVID techs,” said Urbach. “They’re responsible for ensuring that we’re eating and sleeping in a hygienic way. Everybody’s under daily surveillance and there’s daily testing going on.”
The staff and volunteers, as well as mushers, must also wear face masks at the checkpoints.
Who’s competing in this year’s race?
Just 47 mushers — all but 12 of them are race veterans.
They include former Iditarod champions Pete Kaiser, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Dallas Seavey and Martin Buser.
There’s also 2021 Kuskokwim 300 champion Richie Diehl, as well as former Yukon Quest champions Brent Sass and Matt Hall.
Three-time Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle, who has also won the Quest, is hoping to win this year’s Iditarod too, which she says will be her last.
(Here’s the starting order for all of this year’s mushers.)
What do mushers have to say about the COVID-19 rules?
Several mushers interviewed said they feel pretty good about the precautions in place.
Or, as dog-handler-turned-Iditarod-musher Sean Underwood put it:
“Bottom line is, I’m not really an expert on COVID. Like, I’m just out here living in the middle of nowhere, picking up dog poop, you know,” the 29-year-old said.
He said he trusts that the Iditarod and infectious disease experts have come up with the best plan, and he will abide by its rules.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, 62, said he’s vaccinated, but even if he wasn’t, mushing through Alaska wilderness with his dogs feels like a safe pandemic activity.
“Where better to be if you’re into self-isolating anyway?” he said. “The answer would be somewhere on the Iditarod Trail.”
Even before the coronavirus, Buser usually brought his own small tent on the Iditarod Trail to rest in, instead of sleeping in checkpoint buildings with fellow mushers.
He’ll continue the routine this year.
Other mushers are also hopping on the trend, including 37-year-old twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington.
Anna said she knows everyone will be tested, but the thought of sharing a tent with others still feels too risky.
“So we did go out and buy little pop-up tents and we’ve practiced with those, so we can have our own little bubble in the bubble,” she said.
The Beringtons said while they’re already not seeing many people this winter, they’re being extra cautious in the lead-up to the race.
Underwood said he is too, and plans to keep to himself at the race start.
“I’m not going to be hugging random strangers,” he said. “This is high stakes. And that could cost you dearly, you know, down the line.”
Underwood is competing with Dallas Seavey’s “B-team” as a race rookie, after he and two other mushers got rescued from the trail last year.
What about this year’s race trail? What do mushers think?
Depending on who you talk to, some mushers say the idea of going over the Alaska Range twice is very exciting — or very daunting.
Buser, perhaps, falls somewhere in the middle.
“The range is always a challenge, whether you only do it once, with a fresh team in the northerly direction, or now we’re doing it twice,” he said. “It’s going to be a substantial challenge.”
Diehl, 35, said he’s curious about what the trail will look like when teams race back down it, on their way to the finish.
“Some of those bridges that we go over, can kind of break apart afterward,” he said. “So I’m interested to see how some of these little creeks and stuff that we cross going out will be when we come back.”
Matthew Failor, 38, said he’s looking forward to seeing more dog teams on an out-and-back trail as they pass one another.
“It’ll be fun to get a high-five from the mushers on the way and I think that’ll give the dogs a little, you know, just like a little pick-me-up,” he said.
Some mushers say they’re also packing differently this year because of the trail and checkpoint set up.
Aside from bringing a pop-up tent, Failor said he’s also sending extra socks and toe warmers to checkpoints to try to keep his feet warm, knowing it’s unlikely there will be indoor space to dry gear.
It’s also unlikely mushers will be able to charge electronics along much — if not all — of the trail.
That means Kristy Berington is bringing a small battery-powered camera to document the race, instead of using her phone.
“We had to dig it out of the archives,” she said.
Underwood said he bought a new, battery-powered headlamp to replace the more powerful, rechargeable one he normally uses, and would plug in at schools.
It’s not ideal, he said, but it’ll work.
“I’m sending out like hundreds of AA batteries for my little little weenie of a headlamp,” he said, laughing. “I’m going to be changing batteries every three or four hours.”
How can I follow the 2021 Iditarod?
Alaska Public Media isn’t sending any reporters on the trail this year because of race restrictions and COVID-19 concerns. But we’ll be reporting on the race start and finish, as well as other breaking news, at alaskapublic.org and on 91.1 FM.
Also, keep an eye out for some episodes of the Iditapod podcast to drop over the next couple weeks, where we’ll talk Iditarod happenings.
(We posted our first episode of Season 5 of the Iditapod just before the race start. Take a listen here.)
Other local news outlets will also be following the race, and there’s coverage provided by the Iditarod itself on iditarod.com.