ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – While the actual gold rush town of Iditarod is no more, the sled dog race that bears its name is alive and well in the Last Frontier. On Sunday, 85 dog mushers took off from Willow Lake two hours north of Anchorage on what they all hope will be a 1000-mile trek to the finish line in Nome.
The word Iditarod is an Alaska Native term for distant place, and the 44th running of the race takes competitors into places far from modern amenities. The route follows the historical gold rush and mail trail that winds its way up and over 3,000-foot mountain passes in the Alaska and Kuskokwim Ranges, over rushing rivers and along desolate stretches of Bering Sea ice.
It’s dubbed “The Last Great Race on Earth” and was founded as a way to honor and revive a traditional mode of transportation between remote communities where dog power was being rapidly replaced by snow machines in the 1960s.
Race founders Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. proposed a sled dog race over a historical route as one way to commemorate the centennial of Alaska’s purchase from Russia to become a U.S. territory in 1867. At that time a 56-mile race was held.
Afterward, Redington dreamed of a much longer race to preserve the historical trail and save the sled dog culture. In 1973 he and others launched what is now the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Racers from all over the world have come to compete each year, but only 749 have reached the finish line.
There are two routes that racers alternate use of each year. On even years like 2016, the race follows what is known as the Northern Route with 26 checkpoints. On odd years the race uses the Southern Route with 27 stopover points.
Using two routes allows more small villages to benefit economically from race events. For about two weeks their little spot on the map buzzes with activity from mushers, volunteers and tourists.
Some checkpoints, like the race’s namesake Iditarod, are now just ghost towns where organizers put up a few tents. Others are larger Alaska Native villages whose residents stock the checkpoint full of traditional foods like fry bread and fish dishes, or welcome each musher with eggs cooked when he or she walks in.
The rule on the trail is that what is offered to one musher must be offered equally to all. The checkpoints also serve as makeshift sleeping spots for racers to catch some rest and warm up a bit before moving on down the trail.
Volunteers also put out straw for the dogs while veterinarians check over the teams. The race is not about just who gets to Nome first, it’s about getting as many of the dogs on your team there with you and in good health. The biggest rule of all is that dog care comes first.
Mushers feed and bed down their dogs before taking respite themselves. This involves heating up water provided at checkpoints or from nearby streams over a cooker that is part of mandatory gear. Commercial dog kibble and a variety of raw meat or fish is added to make a stew that fuels the dogs for the miles ahead.
If during a veterinary check a dog is found to be ill or a musher is concerned that one of his team is too tired to go on, that dog is “dropped” from the team. Volunteers care for dropped dogs until they are flown out by a volunteer air support team called “the Iditarod Airforce” to either Anchorage or Nome, depending on where on the trail the dog is at the time.
Up to 16 dogs make up a team, and most are what is known as an Alaska husky. This is not an American Kennel Club-registered breed. An Alaska husky is a mix of many breeds suited for long, hard runs in cold weather, including Siberian husky or malamute, but may also have blood from greyhound, border collie or other similar breeds known for deep chests with great lung capacity, intelligence and speed.
There are, however, a few teams each year who will run an entire team of what fans think of as the traditional sled dog, Siberian huskies. Some call them “slowberians,” because they tend to take longer to get to the finish due to their bulkier builds.
Other than the checkpoint food and rest spots, mushers are not allowed any outside help. They can, however, help each other on the trail in keeping with pioneer traditions. This often involves helping another musher get his team rerouted back on the trail if lost, or in extreme instances rescuing a racer who has gotten bogged down in a storm and is suffering from hypothermia.
Each year a handful of mushers will “scratch” or be “withdrawn” prior to the finish. A scratch is by musher’s choice. In previous years scratches have been due to physical illness, pneumonia, broken legs and wrists or other injuries, broken equipment such as the all vital sled, or a dog team that just won’t go any farther because of illness or even mutiny on the trail.
Withdrawals of a racer by officials can be more controversial than the misfortune of a scratch. Officials can disqualify a musher for receiving outside help or one of any number of infractions in the rulebook.
One of the most devastating reasons for a withdrawal involves a racer who is going too slowly. Since checkpoints must remain open until the last musher on the trail passes through, racers must be careful not to lag too far behind that officials feel they can no longer justify the checkpoint operating expenses and the safety concerns of keeping track of stragglers.
A new and extremely controversial rule this year imposes penalties as great as disqualification or race bans on mushers who speak out publicly against the race, its sponsors or organizers. During a pre-race media briefing, race marshal Mark Nordman said, “Mushers asked us to make the race more respectful a more professional world-class event.”
Despite the risks of illness, injury and disqualification along the trail, there are also many rewards. In addition to the ultimate honor of arriving first in Nome, this year’s winner will receive $70,000 in cash plus a new truck. The top 30 finishers all receive a cash percentage based on their finish rank, while those who finish 31st and below receive $1,049 – a symbolic number representing the roughly 1,000 trail miles and Alaska as the 49th state.
A truck and $70,000 may seem like a lot of money to some, but it really barely covers a year of dog care and training for a competitive musher. The winningest mushers maintain kennels of 50 to 100 dogs all year round.
In the summer they run tour operations. During the fall and winter they train daily to build their dog team’s endurance: two miles in the beginning, building up to 50-mile runs or more in addition to competing in mid-distance races of 300 to 400 miles.
There are also opportunities for other mushers – not just the winner – throughout the race. Cash, gourmet meals and gold nuggets are awarded when the lead musher reaches certain milestones along the trail. At the finishers’ banquet in Nome organizers give out additional cash and item awards for outstanding veterinary care, sportsmanship, and top-finishing rookie, among others.
In addition to the usual dangers of the trail and the potential for overwhelming fatigue or illness, Mother Nature has offered racers and organizers greater challenges the last few years. The past two years in particular have seen lower than usual snowfall and higher than normal temperatures.
In 2014 organizers debated moving the start 400 miles north to Fairbanks due to lack of snow. So many mushers had to scratch that year after busting up their bodies or their sleds that the following year officials erred on the side of caution and rerouted the race from Fairbanks to Nome. This has only happened one other time in the race’s history, in 2003.
This year the Alaska Railroad had to bring in snow from Fairbanks to accommodate a shortened ceremonial route through Anchorage this past Saturday, but the majority of the traditional official route has enough snow to proceed as planned from Willow.
The race kicked off on Sunday, under a bluebird sky and warmer than normal temperatures. The mushers’ progress can be followed on Iditarod.com.
It usually takes about 8 to 10 days for the first musher to arrive in Nome, and up to 14 days for the final racer to reach the finish line.
Courthouse News will provide updates over the next two weeks on happenings along the trail, interesting race tidbits, and the first-place finish.
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