Bailey Vitello waves to onlookers at the official start of the Iditarod race in Willow, Alaska on Sunday, March 5, 2023. Photo by Amanda Williams

The 11-mile, ceremonial start of the 51st Iditarod Sled Dog Race on March 4 began on a very chilly but beautiful sunny morning. The cheering crowds were in the thousands, lining the route in downtown Anchorage in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the 33 courageous mushers, before they began the longest dog sled race in the world.

The Iditarod, meaning “distant place” in Native Ingalik and Holikachu, is a race that sees mushers and a team of their furry dynamos trekking nearly 1,000 miles across the Alaskan territory, ending their journey in Nome. The terrain is challenging but thrilling, with awe-inspiring scenery — a mix of flatlands in the Interior, along the Yukon River, across the treacherous Dalzell Gorge, over the ice or overland at Norton Bay and along the coast of the Bering Sea before they reach their destination. Checkpoints along the trail are remote and include Nikolai, the first of many Native villages along the Iditarod trail, as well Unalakleet, White Mountain and Koyuk. When the mushers reach the halfway point in of the race, they will have traveled some 432 miles.

The 2023 Iditarod mushers are a mix of veteran racers and rookies. Brent Sass, winner of the 2022 Iditarod, returned this year. Jason Mackey, brother of the late, legendary Iditarod racer Lance Mackey, is in the running this year. Lance was named the 2023 Honorary Musher, a tribute to his legacy. Lance competed in the “last great race on earth” 16 times and finished first four years in a row: 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Jason will be carrying his brother Lance’s ashes along the trail.

Glenda Deputy rode in the dog sled piloted by Jason Mackey during the ceremonial start. Deputy shared she has had a home in Ninilchik for the last ten years, and she and her husband come up for vacation for the Iditarod, either for the beginning or the end of the race. Deputy shared she bid on and won the coveted spot in the dog sled.

She said it was the thrill of a lifetime, as she has been following the careers of both Lance and Jason Mackey for many years.

“I have been planning this a minimum of 15 years. We all know Lance, and we all know how tight the family is and everything. Even though we don’t really know each other, we all hugged and cried. It was very emotional,” said Deputy. “Jason is excited since it’s his first year back for a while. He said his team of dogs is very special. Within three years, they will be the winner.”

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Winner of the 2023 Junior Iditarod, Emily Robinson, stands at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday, March 4. Photo by Amanda Williams

The Cordova Times caught up with 2023 Iditarod mushers Matthew Failor and KattiJo Deeter. Failor is a veteran musher from Willow and Deeter is a rookie musher from Fairbanks.

“These last days leading up to the race, you’re probably busier in your head than you are outwardly,” said Deeter, who owns Black Spruce Dog Sledding with her husband Jeff Deeter.

She has a unique distinction of one of the only mushers to run all the way to Nome, but was not considered an official finisher in 2022. Deeter shared she and four other mushers got shut down in a ground blizzard halfway between the checkpoints of White Mountain and Safety.

“It was very extreme cross wind, super icy,” said Deeter. “We were just getting literally blown off the trail, somersaulted kind of down the side of the mountain. We got to a point where we couldn’t go forward or backward. We did have to press our buttons on our tracker devices to call for assistance.”

Snow-machiners came out from White Mountain and brought the mushers, sleds and dog teams to the Topkok shelter cabin, where they spent roughly 24 hours.

“Another group of snow machiners came from Nome to basically encourage us and let us know the wind is crazy but not quite as crazy,” said Deeter. “It’s not what I really wanted, but I think I was physically in good shape, my dogs were in good shape, my sled was in good shape, and it made the most sense to me to get back on my sled and keep mushing. We ran the rest of the way to Nome.”

Deeter shared that she spends a lot of time with her Alaskan husky dog team. Moose, Chipwa and Dillon are the dogs she is “leaning on the most” in the upcoming race.

“I spend a lot of time bringing them inside, laying with them, snuggling with them and talking to them,” she said. “It is very important that a musher has a personal connection with their dogs. The dogs are running and pulling because they enjoy it, but there are also moments where it’s really hard, and you have to ask them to do something a little extra.”

When the checkpoint arrives, a warm meal and ample rest for the four-legged super athletes are on the agenda.

Deeter shared that competing in the Iditarod is a unique and primitive way to enjoy the outdoors, and that she feels lucky to be involved.

“I feel very special, very lucky. It’s so beautiful to be out in the quiet and the solitude, and the beauty of nature with the dogs, I think that’s the best part,” said Deeter.

Failor, who owns Alaskan Husky Adventures with his wife Liz, is also back for more this year. He has raced in the Iditarod a plethora of times and won the “Most Inspirational Musher” award in 2022. When Failor got a job at a dogsledding camp in 2006, he said he was “completely enamored” by the dogs and the dog mushing culture.

“There are so many layers that can easily relate to the human world,” said Failor. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s the inside that counts. There are so many things about it that are good, honest stuff that revolves around the dog mushing world.”

2022 Iditarod Sled Dog Race champion Brent Sass of Eureka is greeted by dozens of fans from all over the world as he mushes his dogs during the ceremonial start of Iditarod 2023 in Anchorage on Saturday, March 2. Sass ran his first Iditarod in 2012 and has finished a total of six famed races, including three in the top 10. Just 33 mushers, including 11 rookies and two defending champions, including Sass, entered this year’s race over the southern route from Willow to Nome. Photo by Margaret Bauman

During this year’s Iditarod race, Failor is driving a sit-down, split-level Hans Gatt sled. The driver stands about two feet up the runner with a seat in the rear, which is standard for most mushers.

Failor shared his anticipation and feelings in the days leading up to the epic race.

“I have done it a bunch now, so I kind of know what to expect. Everyone gets the pre-race jitters know matter what they tell you,” said Failor. “If you’re an athlete or have been a part of any athletic event, you have that anxious feeling. I am not nervous, worried or scared. I just want it to start.”

Failor shared he trains the dog team from their property in Willow, where a large swath of acreage is accessible with private trails he maintains. Failor is “trying to crack the top ten, and also believe his dogs can win.

“The dogs can win, it’s just about putting it all together … there are a lot of teams that are amazing, (and) have great strategies and experience,” said Failor.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, addresses the crowd in joyous fashion at the ceremonial start of the 2023 Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday, March 4. Photo by Amanda Williams

The scene at Willow Lake was jubilant: people ripping around on snow machines, hang gliders soaring above, people smiling and wishing the mushers good luck as they headed out into the wilderness. Luckily, the weather afforded another sunny day.

The official race started in Willow at 2 p.m. last Sunday. To follow along with the musher standings and exclusive race coverage, visit the Iditarod website at https://iditarod.com/.

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Amanda Williams, originally from California, is a reporter, photographer and videographer for the Cordova Times. She has a long history of writing professionally for magazines and newspapers in her home state, and she also writes her own music. Williams is a decorated Navy veteran. When she isn’t covering the news, she enjoys skiing, singing, spending time with friends and family and traveling. She first came to Cordova as a VetsWork intern working for the Forest Service as a public outreach specialist on the Cordova Ranger District.