The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Alaska's premier wilderness challenge, begins this weekend mired in scandals.
There's fallout from a dog doping fiasco, a musher mutiny, and unprecedented pressure from protest groups. All of which, according to a leaked report, are putting the event's future in dire jeopardy.
Saturday marks the "ceremonial start" of the race, when the streets of downtown Anchorage fill with more than a thousand yapping sled dogs. Looking on from the snowy sidewalks are tourists, townies, and mushing fans outfitted in their finest furs. The festivities arrive at the tail end of the city's annual Fur Rondy, a week of events harkening back to a yearly rendezvous among fur trappers, where pelts and antlers are sold openly in the streets. By the time the Iditarod kicks off, the vibe is somewhere between a parade and a dog pageant, with notes of a folksy rural carnival.
The next day, dozens of competitors set out on the grueling journey over snowy mountains, icy rivers, and frozen tundra toward the tiny town of Nome on the Bering Sea coast. As the race has grown increasingly competitive in recent years, top teams make the trek in between eight and nine days.
But this year's race is up against extra challenges, as multiple controversies have crashed down with near simultaneity.
The most high-profile one involves mushing star Dallas Seavey who has been embroiled in the sport's first doping scandal after it came out that some of his dogs tested positive for a banned painkiller at the end of last year's race.
Seavey vigorously denies that he drugged his team, and faults the Iditarod's board of directors for mishandling the investigation, hurting his reputation in the process.
The scandal drove Seavey to post a 17-minute video on YouTube lashing out at race leadership.
"The Iditarod can try to run me over, they can try to throw me under the bus," said Dallas Seavey, a musher wunderkind who won the race four times before he was 30 years old. In the Oct. 23 video he speaks directly into a camera. "They're going to find out I don't fit under the bus."
"There is part of this race that is a cancer right now," Seavey says in the video, alluding to the Iditarod Trail Committee's board. "There is a corruption in this race."
Seavey snubbed this year's Iditarod, and is competing in a Norwegian race that runs at the same time. He has also pushed back on the damning doping narrative by hiring a public relations firm, casting doubt on science behind the drug tests, and aggressively defending his record in the press.
So how did high levels of Tramadol, a widely prescribed opioid, get into four of Seavey's dogs within hours of his arrival in Nome last year?
"I believe this was given to my dogs maliciously," Seavey says. "I think that's the most likely option."
The idea that a saboteur drugged Seavey's dogs is accepted by many in Alaska's mushing community. Some believe it could have been an unintentional accident. Some think it might have been a rival competitor. And others point to animal rights activists, who have done more in recent years to take down the Iditarod's public image. Leading that charge is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. The group says it did not have any personnel in Alaska last year, and condemns dogs being given banned substances. But the group is escalating its tactics by leaning harder than ever on corporate sponsors to drop their support for the event.
"One of the biggest lies that the Iditarod community has tried to sell the public is that these dogs aren't like the dogs we share our homes with, and it's not true," says Colleen O'Brien, a spokesperson for PETA.
The group wants the Iditarod to become a race without dogs, saying too many animals have died as a result of competition, and that mushing is inherently abusive. It claims that sponsor flight is taking a toll on the Iditarod's financial health. And this year, for the first time ever, they are sending protesters to Alaska, with demonstrations planned in Anchorage and at the finish in Nome.
On top of all that, earlier in February a prominent group of race veterans called for the president of the board of directors to resign immediately. Members of the Iditarod Official Finisher's Club sent a letter alleging his mismanagement and conflicts of interest they say are jeopardizing the whole sport.
The demand came on the heels of a confidential report commissioned by the race's main sponsors leaked to the press. It pointed to many of the same problems, saying the board needs major reforms for companies to remain comfortable financing it. Following a closed door meeting, ITC board members voted unanimously to leave president Andy Baker (who's brother, John Baker, is a champion Iditarod musher) at the helm for the time being.
"Everybody wants the race to do better," Baker told reporters after the meeting. "Our whole focus is we want to have a safe race. We want dogs to be safe, we want mushers to be safe, and we want a successful race that's good for Alaska."
Baker says the board is planning to revise its governing rules in the spring, once this year's race is over. That opens the door for reforming leadership practices that have been recently criticized.
Many in the mushing world are pining for the old days, when the Iditarod was more like a weeks-long wilderness adventure than a race.
"There's a big part of me that feels that way," says Stan Hooley, Iditarod's CEO. "Unfortunately I'm in the business, and in the role of working to grow this race."
Some people say that means the Iditarod isn't as fun anymore — that the race doesn't resemble the state-wide celebration it used to be. But others say the global audience and increase in corporate money that it has drawn could be what carries dog mushing on into the future.
For more on all things mushing, subscribe to the Iditapod, a podcast about the Iditarod from Alaska Public Media and KNOM Radio.