Is there enough dog mushing in Anchorage to designate an entire district?

Today, the Municipality of Anchorage released a draft version of the Downtown District Plan 2021. In the coming weeks, I’ll likely address several items in the plan and submit comments. This plan is “intended to guide development in Downtown for the next 20 years.” 

I’ve always been an advocate for the success of downtown, my first professional job was there, and my first apartment was on the outskirts of downtown. I’ve almost always gotten behind any effort that sought to breathe some life back into downtown, such as the successful convention center project to the Anchorage Public Market but, there’s one that I’m struggling even to pretend to be enthusiastic about – The Mushing District.

Since 2016, a volunteer effort has sought to create a “mushing district” along 4th Avenue between F Street and C Street. A stretch of downtown dominated by the blue mall, the Sunshine Mall, and old Anchorage holdout, the Avenue Bar. The desire to change the character of this area (by giving it some) is well-meaning, and I’d love to see some vibrancy there, especially with the soon-to-be-completed street and sidewalk improvements by Alaska DOT.

The purpose of this district is to celebrate the rich history of dog mushing in the State of Alaska and particularly of dog racing on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage. Phase one of this project will include a three-block strip of Fourth Avenue from C Street to F Street.

The mushing district is enormous!

Does designating a stretch of 4th Avenue as a mushing district make sense? If Anchorage had a mushing district, this would undoubtedly be the place -both mushing events of the year are held here: The ceremonial start of the Iditarod and the World Champion Sled Dog Races – less than a week apart. Is that enough mushing to designate it a mushing district?

I love a good landmark sign, the Reno arch, modest, unlit metal mushing district arch, and I can’t say I’m too crazy about it; I don’t hate it, but I say: if we’re going to do an arch, let’s do an arch!

Last year, Alaska Airlines announced that 2020 would be the last year they sponsor the Iditarod, a major blow to the event. Alaska Airlines’ official statement denied any connection with the efforts of PETA to convince sponsors to stop funding the race.

A 2019 op-ed by veteran musher John Schandelmeier cited an overall decline in mushing with fewer mushers participating in events due to the high cost of keeping a team and shrinking race purses.

Another factor that may come into play, though it is tough to quantify, is the shrinking number of people willing to shoulder the commitment of owning a bunch of sled dogs. Sled dogs are a lifestyle requiring full-time participation.

John Schandelmeier

While Schandelmeier’s piece wasn’t intended to discourage mushing in any way (quite the opposite), I can’t help but observe that the overall popularity of this sport isn’t growing.

For the record, I don’t dislike dog mushing. I support The Iditarod and World Champion Sled dog races; they’re unique events and contribute to the interestingness of Anchorage and should probably be commemorated with some interpretive signage, etc. I’ve always participated in Fur Rondy by forcing myself and imploring my friends and family to go out into the cold and have a good time, whether we like it or not and yes, watch the start of the Iditarod.

Climate change is also a concern. When considering the longevity of winter activities, especially one that requires a specific amount of snow, is that sustainable? Several years ago, warm winter weather forced organizers to bring an entire trainload of snow from Fairbanks, which was barely enough for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod- I think it was the year I took the photo in this article.

Without consistent dog mushing activity in the mushing district, it just feels like more kitsch in a downtown struggling to break free of tacky souvenir shops and tourist trap “Alaskan” aesthetics.

Photo Credit: Mikhail Siskoff CC BY