Above is a map of the route sled-dog teams will follow for the Iditarod, which starts March 2. It is the official map put out by the Iditarod Trail Committee. Iditarod veteran and bush pilot Don Bowers (now deceased) wrote some wonderfully detailed descriptions of what sled-dog teams face on each leg of the race. They can be found here (scroll down to the table links) along with a printable version of the map.
I’ll mention only a few of the trail’s more salient features.
The first thing to note is that the map shows the trail splitting at Ophir, near the halfway point of the race, into a northern and southern route before meeting again at Kaltag. The northern route is used during even-numbered years (e.g., 2008, 2010, 2012), the southern-route during odd-numbered years (e.g., 2009, 2011, 2013). The southern route was added to the race in the late 1970s for several reasons:
- To involve the southern villages in the race.
- To include the historic gold rush town of Iditarod.
- To give the northern villages a break by having the race run through them only every other year.
This year’s mushers will, of course, follow the southern route.
CHECKPOINTS AND MANDATORY RESTS
Mushers must check in with a race official at each labeled checkpoint. The race official notes the musher’s time in, number of dogs, and asks whether the musher will stay to rest or pass through the checkpoint. For most checkpoints, staying or going is up to the musher. However, there are three mandatory checkpoint rests each musher must take:
- One 24-hour rest, to be taken at a checkpoint of the musher’s choosing. Most mushers take this long rest at McGrath.
- One 8-hour rest at one of the checkpoints on the Yukon river (for the 2013 route, this would include Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island).
- One mandatory 8-hour rest at White Mountain.
Mushers may also rest anywhere along the trail between checkpoints provided they move off the trail to make way for other dog teams.
During checkpoints rests, mushers unharness their dogs and spread straw for them to rest or sleep on. (Before the race, mushers arrange with the ITC to have straw bales and dog food shipped to the various checkpoints.) Mushers remove their dogs’ protective booties and apply ointment to the dogs’ feet. They also feed the dogs before getting a hot meal and sleep themselves.Veterinarians at each checkpoint along the route examine the dogs for any health issues. If a dog is overly tired, sick, or injured, a musher can drop it from the team at a checkpoint. (Mushers start the race with a maximum of sixteen dogs and must have at least six on the towline when they finish.) Mushers are not allowed to leave sick or injured dogs on the trail between checkpoints. If a dog gets sick or injured or dies on the trail (which is rare), the musher must carry it in their sled basket to the next checkpoint.
THE ROUGH STRETCHES
The trail from Willow to Finger is a relatively trouble-free run, though during this early stretch of the race sled-dog teams still have to contend with fans, media, snowmobiles, etc. Once they clear the Alaska Range, after Rohn, they head into the Alaskan interior where they are pretty much on their own, at least between checkpoints. However, they do sometimes have to contend with wildlife on the trail. Moose can be a particular problem, especially when there is heavy snowfall. The moose sometimes use the trail to get better footing. This can lead to violent encounters between moose and dogs. During the 1985 Iditarod, veteran musher Susan Butcher had to withdraw from the race after two of her dogs were killed by a pregnant moose.
The difficulties with the trail itself start after Finger Lake, as sled-dog teams make the 3,000-foot ascent up the Alaska Range to the Rainy Pass checkpoint. On the way to Rainy Pass, sled-dog teams encounter the Happy River Steps, a series of three sharp, twisting descents. Sled brakes often get a good workout tackling this part of the trail, and it can be particularly treacherous during periods of high winds or blizzards.
After reaching the summit at Rainy Pass, sled-dog teams make the steep descent down the western side of the Alaska Range into Dalzell Gorge, a several-mile winding drop into a frozen river valley. It is quite a wild ride! Here is a video clip, shot by Aliy Zirkle, showing a musher’s perspective of heading into the Gorge.
Veteran musher and four-time Iditarod champion, Martin Buser, says of crossing this part of the Alaska Range, “It takes two days to get up it and two hours to get down.”
Once mushers reach the Rohn checkpoint, they’ve cleared the Alaska Range and the most difficult part of the trail. Still, there are some tricky stretches that await them, especially in bad weather.
The Farewell Burn
Between the 75-mile stretch between Rohn and Nikolai, mushers cross the Farewell Burn, the result of a 1977 forest fire that scorched over 300, 000 acres. When snowfall is light, mushers encounter a bumpy field of grass tussocks and deadfall poking through the snow. It can make for a bone-jarring ride that has been known to break both resolve and sleds.
Once mushers reach the ghost town of Iditarod, they’re halfway to Nome.
The Yukon River
The southern route along the Yukon River, between Anvik and Kaltag, can be challenging as mushers sometimes face fierce 50 mile-per-hour headwinds across the desolate tundra. Windchill can bring the temperature down to 50 degrees below zero.
The Bering Sea
Mushers reach the Bering Sea Coast at Unalakleet. High winds and blizzards coming off Norton Sound are not uncommon. Between Shaktoolik and Koyuk is a 50-mile stretch across sea ice where it is easy to lose sight of the trail in a blizzard.
In addition to these highlights, sled-dog teams face slick glaciers where dogs find it hard to get their footing and mushers work to control their sleds; undulating hills and sharp hairpin turns; holes in the ice; narrow ice bridges spanning rapidly moving water; missing or misplaced trail markers; fighting dogs; dogs in heat; unfriendly wildlife; and trees, trees, trees. It’s also easy for lead dogs to lose the scent of the trail, especially for teams who are out front. Front-runners have to break trail, which can slow them down considerably. Warmer winters raise temperatures on some parts of the trail to 30 – 40 degrees, which is hard on huskies used to running in -20-degree weather.
Other than that, it’s a sled ride.
Not that you’ll be seeing me try it anytime soon!