How do mushers afford the Iditarod? Anja Radano says every year it’s a struggle.

Anja Radano is originally from Germany and started mushing in 2004. She now lives in Talkeetna, and this year is her third Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

On a rest day before the Iditarod, Anja Radano stepped into the yard next to her house in Talkeetna. All 23 dogs in her kennel exploded with excitement.

“They’re all really friendly. A little wild sometimes,” she laughed as a big brown and black dog named Rice leapt toward her, hoping for pets.

“He’s just a big boy, so if you’re not prepared, he can kind of knock you over. But he doesn’t mean it. And then that’s his mom back there, her name is Butcher,” she said, pointing a few dog houses down from Rice.

“She’s my favorite. Like you, don’t have favorites, but she’s my favorite,” Radano said.

This week, Radano is on the trail racing toward her third Iditarod finish. She said she loves the single-mindedness of being on the trail, focusing only on her dogs and the next checkpoint. But getting to this point takes months of preparation and training — and a lot of money. And that’s a struggle every year, said Radano. 

While some mushers have major tour businesses and sponsors that help fund their kennels and pay for staff, others like Radano are working non-dog jobs to balance the big bills that come with being a dog musher.

“If you’re just working normal jobs and you’re not making, you know, $100,000 a year, then it’s almost impossible to pay for all this on your own,” she said.

But Radano wouldn’t trade her mushing lifestyle.

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From training horses to training dogs

Radano has lived in Talkeetna since 2003. She was born in Germany in a small village called Hechendorf, outside of Munich, where she grew up training horses with her family. 

“Working animals, I was always intrigued with because it’s not just like this lazy dog that hangs out on the couch and just wants to be pet and fed,” she said. “You can build more of a connection with an animal that has a job and does what it’s meant to do and what it’s bred for.”

Radano found her way to Talkeetna on a road trip in the summer of 2003 and returned that winter to be a dog handler for Iditarod musher Melanie Gould. Pretty much immediately, she said, she wanted that life, too, even if she knew it wouldn’t be easy. 

“Honestly, there was not too much of a thought process. It was more like a fluid transition. I mean, I knew kind of what it takes working for a musher — what it costs, what it takes, what is necessary,” she said.

Butcher is 6 years old and has finished two Iditarod races. She’s named after Susan Butcher, the second woman to ever win the Iditarod. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Radano has made racing work over the years by stringing jobs together, often saving money all summer to be able to train in the winter. But in the last decade, things like dog food and mushing gear have gotten more expensive, especially during the pandemic. And she said it’s getting harder for mushers with smaller operations like hers to keep racing the Iditarod. 

She skipped the 1,000-mile race for a few years to run shorter ones that don’t require as much money or training time.

“If you’re just a normal musher like me, you know, it’s getting harder and harder to do stuff like that, because it’s so costly, and now with prices rising and all that,” she said

Early in her mushing journey, Radano trained to become a vet technician, working a few days a week in Wasilla. But eventually she found she could actually make more money waiting tables at Denali BrewPub in Talkeetna. In the summer, she works as a guide at five-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey’s kennel nearby.

“That’s pretty recent, because I’m not working at a vet clinic anymore. So I needed another job to support my expensive hobby,” she said.

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$15,000 a year on kibble

Radano estimates she spends up to $15,000 a year just on kibble, not to mention the meat, fat and supplements she feeds her dogs. A friend sponsors her team with fresh chum salmon. Then there are vaccines, plus deworming medicines, which can run several hundred dollars a year.

Plus, you have to have enough land to care for the dogs and be able to transport them, said Radano. She spent $3,500 on a used trailer and paid another $2,000 to have a friend outfit it with bunks for the dogs. Flying the dogs back from Nome at the end of the Iditarod is at least $500.

Is it ever a struggle to cover those costs? 

“Yes,” Radano said. “Every day, very much so. It’s definitely a struggle, and it’s getting worse. So that’s why I’m always trying to keep my dog numbers as low as possible. Because every extra mouth to feed is more money. And I just want to give my dogs the best care possible.”

Radano joked that with 23 dog mouths to feed, she probably couldn’t afford to have kids.

“Children are very expensive,” she laughed. “The dogs are my children.”

Anja Radano says she’s reconsidering the way she feeds her dogs. “We were just discussing about changing dog food and what we can use that’s cheaper, because we love the dog food we’re feeding, but they just went up almost 10 bucks per bag, you know, which is a lot if you feed 2,000 pounds or 4,000 pounds of it a year — that’s a lot of money.” (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Radano has small sponsorships from friends and a few local businesses to help offset costs. But unlike better-funded mushers, she doesn’t have a handler to help her train. And she said while money isn’t everything, it’s a huge factor in how competitive a musher can be in a race like the Iditarod. 

“Dallas Seavey, he actually goes out there and trains his dogs himself, very much so, but he does have an army of handlers who do all the other things. I don’t think he cut a single piece of meat for his food drops,” she said. “I have to do that all by myself.”

For top mushers, some of the expense of mushing can be recouped through race winnings.

Take Seavey. He’s placed in the top 10 in all but two of his 12 races, winning five of them. In total, he’s won $496,661 in prize money, plus new trucks and, last year, a new snowmachine.

In contrast, for Radano’s 35th and 51st place finish during her two Iditarods, she earned $2,098 total — just a fraction of the race entry costs.

Still, Radano said, there is more than just money that makes a champion musher. You have to have a deep understanding of the trail and a strong bond with your team. And those are things that come with time and dedication. 

Radano said she doesn’t expect to win this year’s Iditarod, but that’s also not why she’s running. 

“It’s really more about the journey with your dogs and doing the best you can for your dogs,” she said. “It’s amazing, you know, you can go for a week or two with your best buds and just travel through Alaska.”

Radano said the dogs are her life, not the racing. She’d be a happy musher without running another race. But having paid her $4,000 Iditarod entry fee, she and her team are wearing bib number 26 on this year’s run to Nome.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.

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