KNIK, ALASKA — Twenty-four years ago, a rag-tag collection of mushers gathered in Anchorage for a grueling 1,150-mile dog-sled race to Nome. It was a competitive test of man and canine but was also high adventure that fostered camaraderie. Defying skeptics, they drove their clunky wooden sleds through the frozen tundra and across the finish line in an astonishing three weeks. The modest cash prizes then seemed almost an afterthought.
Today, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a multimillion-dollar extravaganza. Top competitors are full-time professionals supported by deep-pocketed corporate sponsors. They drive aerodynamic Kevlar sleds plastered with company logos. Their dogs are bred and trained scientifically and carry tiny electronic chips to track them along the course.
But as the Iditarod celebrates its 25th running tomorrow, there's a certain wistful nostalgia in the crisp air. Growth has been a mixed blessing for the world's most famous dog-sled race, drawing heightened controversy as well as sophistication. The high cost of fielding a team has shut out many Alaska natives who dominated early competitions. The race has also drawn criticism from animal-rights groups in recent years, which has hurt sponsorship.
But race founder Joe Redington Sr., who will be among the competitors, is proud of the advances, although he knows it will be vastly different from casual early treks. (In the past two years, champions reached Nome in nine days.)
"It used to be campfires along the way, and you'd stop and visit," says Mr. Redington, who lives next to the historic trail once used by dog-sled driving mailmen.
"The race wasn't set up to see how fast we could get to Nome, really. It was set up to enjoy the Iditarod trail and still make a little bit of money to cover your costs," he says.
Redington says he had no idea in 1973 that he had unleashed a phenomenon: "I knew it was good, and I really put an effort into keeping it going. But I'm sure I never felt it would get as big as it did."
Animal-welfare activists have long been suspicious of the race. In the early years, some decried it was the "Bataan Death March of the North." More recently, boycott threats cost the Iditarod more than $750,000 in national sponsorships. No race has been run without a dog death, and some competitors have been disqualified for cruelty to animals.
Iditarod mushers consider themselves dog-care experts and staunchly defend their sport. "Look at these dogs. They're happy. They're well-fed," Redington says, waving at the sleepy animals in his quiet dog lot. The race is responsible for major animal-care advances, he adds. Thanks to the Iditarod, "even food your pet dog now gets is a higher-class dog food."
Scrutiny by animal-rights activists has prompted some rule changes, however including a controversial provision last year - since modified - that tripped up five-time champion Rick Swenson. After a dog on his team died in an accident, he was removed from last year's race. It was the first time Mr. Swenson, long respected for his meticulous animal care, failed to finish in the top 10. After that, he says, his sponsorships evaporated and his career was in tatters.
"I had to sell half my kennel," Swenson said last weekend in Anchorage, with a few of his remaining dogs packed up after a sprint race there. "It's a big loss. I don't have other gainful employment." He says he refuses to compete in the Iditarod again unless organizers admit they made a mistake and issue a public apology.
Still, the Iditarod appears to have recovered from recent political woes. New supporters replaced past sponsors, and this year's purse is $433,000, up from last year's $300,000.
A lingering concern is the disappearance of Alaska Natives from the race field. In early Iditarods, Inupiat Eskimo and Athabaskan Indian mushers dominated the competition. But now the high cost of fielding a competitive Iditarod team - at least $30,000 by some estimates, with a $1,750 entry fee - has shut out many Natives from remote villages. The vast majority of Iditarod competitors live within easy driving distance of Anchorage or Fairbanks, where they can strike sponsorship deals. Of this year's 54 entrants, only three are Native.
While Alaska Natives have lost ground, the Iditarod is famous for accomplishments by women mushers.
In 1985, Libby Riddles challenged a Bering Sea storm and became the first woman to win the race. Then Susan Butcher netted four titles. A rival between Ms. Butcher and Swenson brewed in the late 1980s, inspiring T-shirts that proclaimed Alaska as the land "Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."
Butcher, a new mother, has retired from the Iditarod and the race field is still overwhelmingly male. But sexism has disappeared from the trail, insists Keli Mahoney, an air-taxi operator from Talkeetna who will start her first Iditarod tomorrow. "It's not like it was for the first women," Ms. Mahoney says. They're the ones that were tough."