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.