Mike Williams Jr. doesn’t remember when he started mushing, but once he was strong enough to handle the sled dogs, it became his passion. At first, he mushed after school, taking his father’s dogs on 3- and 4-mile trails near his home in Akiak, Alaska. He ran the Iditarod for the first time in 2010 and has competed seven times since.
The Iditarod is Alaska’s best-known sporting event. Sled dogs and their mushers travel the roughly thousand-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome each year in March to commemorate the 1925 serum run, when a relay of 20 dogsled teams delivered life-saving medication to Nome to halt a diphtheria outbreak. The route is only passable in winter, when the rivers and lakes have frozen over. But the trail has become trickier in the past two decades as the region has warmed, making trail conditions less reliable. The 51st annual running of the Iditarod starts on March 4, but this year there are fewer teams than usual. In the past, there were sometimes as many as 85 teams, but now there are only 33—the lowest participation in the race’s history.
There are many reasons for this drop, but climate change isn’t helping. “Our ecosystem is under fire right now within the state of Alaska,” said Chas St. George, the chief operations officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit that organizes what some call “The Last Great Race.” St. George started his role in 2016, and he says the race has had to adapt to unpredictable weather, which is creating new obstacles and potential safety hazards for mushers and their dogs. Rivers, creeks, and lakes on the route crosses aren’t freezing as reliably as they once did, and vegetation is growing in new places, obstructing the trail. Unseasonably warm storms can bring rain instead of snow, washing away the crucial sea ice in Norton Sound that mushers must cross toward the end of the race. The permafrost is thawing, destabilizing what was once solidly frozen ground, while summer wildfires have become more frequent, meaning charred trees can fall onto the trail.
Williams, the musher from Akiak, says that in the years since he began competing, he has noticed the changes to the landscape and how they’ve impacted the trail. He remembers one warm winter in 2014, when the trail was icy in some areas and reduced to bare ground in others. This made for such a bumpy ride that mushers ended up with sprained ankles, bruises, and broken sleds.
“That was a very tough year for training and racing, and running the Iditarod in those conditions for almost the whole race was very challenging,” he said. “And it was very humbling. I would say a lot of us were lucky to make it through that course without getting hurt, because some people did.”