The most Alaskan of all Alaskan events is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. The “Last Great Race” is run each March, attracting 60 or more of the world’s best mushers, each with a team of up to 20 dogs.
With a top prize of $70,000 and a $500,000 purse for the top 20 teams, the race has become an event with an international following.
History of the Iditarod
Today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is run on the historic Iditarod Trail, a path that had its origins in the 1908 discovery of gold along a river the Ingalik Native Alaskans called hidedhod, meaning “distant place.” Thousands of miners flooded into the region following the find, and trails were cut from Seward to the new boomtown of Iditarod so that mail and supplies could be brought in and gold shipped out. Once the gold ran out after a few years, the miners gradually gave up and left, and the old town began a long slow return to quietude. But other events would eventually bring Iditarod back to life in a new form.
During the winter of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic broke out in Nome, and the territorial governor hurriedly dispatched a 20-pound package of life-saving antitoxin serum to halt the disease’s spread. Regular boat mail would take 25 days, and the only two airplanes in Alaska were open-cockpit biplanes. With temperatures far below zero and only a few hours of light each day (it was mid-January), that option was impossible.
Instead, the package was sent by train from Seward to Nenana, where mushers and their dogs waited to carry the antitoxin on to Nome. What happened next is hard to believe: A Herculean relay effort by 20 different mushers and their dogs brought the vaccine to Nome in just six days. They somehow managed to cover the 674 miles in conditions that included whiteout blizzards, 80 mph winds, and temperatures down to -64°F. The incident gained national attention, and President Coolidge thanked the mushers, presenting each with a medal and $0.50 for each mile traveled.
Long after this heroic effort, two more people entered the picture: Dorothy Page (“Mother of the Iditarod”) and Joe Redington Sr. (“Father of the Iditarod”). In 1967 the two organized a commemorative Iditarod race over a small portion of the trail. Six years later they set up a full-blown dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome, a distance that is officially called 1,049 miles.
The Iditarod is certainly one of the most strenuous events in the world. With below-zero temperatures, fierce winds, and all the hazards that go with crossing the most remote parts of Alaska in winter, the race is certainly not for everyone. Despite this, the Iditarod has gained a measure of fame as one in which both women and men are winners. Between 1985 and 1993, five of the nine winners were women, and the late Susan Butcher won four of these races.
The Iditarod has not one but two actual starts. The official start is from 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, where several thousand onlookers cheer each team that leaves the starting line. The mushers and dogs race as far as Eagle River (25 miles), where they’re loaded into trucks and driven to the “restart” in Willow. (This is to avoid having to sled over the thin snow conditions around Palmer and open water on the Knik River.)
At the restart, the fastest teams into Eagle River leave first, creating chaotic conditions when several 20-dog teams are pulling to the start at once. From here on, it’s 1,000 miles of wilderness.
The Iditarod Trail Committee (907/376-5155 or 800/545-6874, www.iditarod.com) has its headquarters on Knik Road in Wasilla, where they have a museum of race memorabilia and offer wheeled dogsled rides in the summer.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition