History and background

The Rules

I won’t go into all of the Iditarod rules, as they make up a 15-page document, but if you’re curious, you can download a PDF of the complete rules here:

http://iditarod.com/race/rules/

The one rule I’ll note regards the supplies and equipment that must be carried by mushers in their sleds at all times:

  • Proper cold weather sleeping bag weighing a minimum of 5 lbs.
  • Ax, head to weigh a minimum of 1-3/4 lbs., handle to be at least 22” long.
  • One operational pair of snowshoes with bindings, each snowshoe to be at least 252 square inches in size.
  • Any promotional material provided by the ITC.
  • Eight booties for each dog in the sled or in use.
  • One operational cooker and pot capable of boiling at least three (3) gallons of water at one time.
  • Veterinarian notebook, to be presented to the veterinarian at each checkpoint.
  • An adequate amount of fuel to bring three (3) gallons of water to a boil.
  • Cable gang line or cable tie out capable of securing dog team.
  • Functional non chafing harness for each dog in team.

The “promotional material” refers to envelopes stamped in Anchorage and later postmarked in Nome, then sold to fans to raise funds for the race. This tradition goes back to the first Iditarod in 1973 and commemorates the Iditarod Trail as, among other things, a mail route.

Also, something relevant to Saturday’s ceremonial start: tonight, a banquet was held in Anchorage where mushers drew their starting positions for the race. Their position numbers will be listed on their bibs, which they must wear at the ceremonial start, the restart, from the White Mountain checkpoint to the Safety checkpoint, and from the Safety checkpoint to the Nome finish line.

At the ceremonial start and the restart, mushers and their dog teams will leave in two-minute intervals according to their position/bib number. The time differential is adjusted during each musher’s mandatory 24-hour layover.

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Raise the Red Lantern

If you’re following the Iditarod, over the next few weeks you’ll hear references to three things that are part of the  race’s annual ritual: the Burled Arch, the Widow’s Lamp, and the Red Lantern Award. For those new to the race, here are explanations.

Burled Arch

The Burled Arch

During the first Iditarod in 1973, as leader Dick Wilmarth and his dogs made their way down Nome’s Front Street, someone in the crowd realized there was no official finish line. Thinking quickly, the person grabbed a package of Kool-Aid and poured the crystals across the snow where the finish line should have been. It was, arguably, the most delicious finish line in racing history.

The following year, an official banner was put up, but when the last musher crossed beneath it–a gold miner by the name of Red “Fox” Olson–he felt the race needed something more substantial, more permanent. Olson built the original Burled Arch as a gift to the race. It lasted from 1975 to 1999 before succumbing to dry rot. The arch was remade and added to the 2000 race and is still used today.

The arch is made from a spruce log with two distinct burls, or knots. One burl reads “Anchorage” across the top and “Nome” across the bottom, the cities where the race starts and finishes. The other burl reads “1049” across the top and “Miles” across the bottom. The crossbeam reads “End of Iditarod Sled Dog Race.”

1049 miles is the symbolic distance of the Iditarod. The 1,000 signifies that the race is at least 1,000 miles and the 49 commemorates Alaska as the 49th state added to the U.S. The actual distance varies depending on whether the northern or southern routes are followed, where the restart takes place, whether certain checkpoints are dropped as a result of bad weather, etc. The actual race distance usually falls between 1,100 and 1,200 miles.

Widow's Lamp

The Widow’s Lamp

Each year on the first Sunday in March, the Iditarod Trail Committee lights a small gas lantern and hangs it from the Burled Arch. Called the Widow’s Lamp, it remains lit until the last musher is off the Iditarod trail. The extinguishing of the lamp by the final musher signals the official end of the race.

The ritual is somewhat similar to the lighting and extinguishing of the Olympic flame. However, the tradition actually replicates a practice followed during Alaska’s gold rush, when sled-dog teams hauled freight and mail over the Iditarod trail. Because freight and mail mushers often battled darkness and inclement weather, word would be relayed whenever a dog team was on the trail, and the roadhouses along the trail would each light a kerosene lamp and hang it outside to help the musher find his way. It also signaled to others that a dog team was on the trail and people should look out for it. The lamp would not be extinguished until the dog team safely reached its destination.

Ellen Halverson

Ellen Halverson with her Red Lantern Award at the end of the 2011 Iditarod. Alaskapublic.org

The Red Lantern Award

The Red Lantern is an award given to the Iditarod’s last place finisher. The tradition began as a joke during the 1953 Fur Rendezvous Race and was passed on to the Iditarod. Over the years, however, it has become a symbol of perseverance. Today’s mushers feel a proud sense of accomplishment when receiving the Red Lantern Award.

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Musherspeak!

Musher

If you’re like me, you grew up associating dog sledding with the oft-heard command “Mush!” After all, there’s a reason they’re called “mushers.” Perhaps you saw it in a movie. Jack London uses the command in The Call of the Wild. According to Wikipedia, its derivation is the French-Canadian command “Marche! which means “Go!” or “Run!” English-Canadians may have heard this as “Mush!” and before you know it English-speaking sledders everywhere became mush-mouths.

Today, the more commonly used command for dogs to go is “Hike!” (don’t ask me its derivation), or, more simply, “Let’s go!” Sled dogs don’t need a lot of incentive to go–they’re usually bursting out of their harnesses when they sense it’s time–so a musher could probably use any command. “Purple azaleas!” might work just as well. Or “Discount checking!”

Here’s a list of commonly used musher commands.

Hike! Let’s go! All right! Commands to go.

Gee! Command to turn right.

Haw! Command to turn left.

Come gee! Command to turn right 180-degrees.

Come haw! Command to turn left 180-degrees.

Straight ahead! Obvious.

Easy! Command to slow down.

Whoa! Command to stop.

Trail! Request to other mushers to have the right-of-way on a trail.

Line out! Command telling lead dogs to pull the team straight out away from the sled. It is usually used while hooking dogs up to the gangline.

Iditarod.com has a complete list of mushing terminology and definitions here: http://iditarod.com/about/mushing-terminology/

So, what are you waiting for? Go grab your dog and a leash and give it a try with your bicycle or skateboard. (Toy dogs not recommended.)

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Who Are Those Crazy Iditarod Mushers Anyway?

Iditarod Blizzard

Who would be crazy enough to mush dogs over 1100 miles in freezing, unpredictable weather, across difficult, sometimes dangerous terrain, for a purse that, by American sporting standards, is relatively small? And who would spend years breeding, raising, and training dogs, at great personal expense, to enter such a grueling race, not once, but many times? For some, many, many times?

It helps to be Alaskan. It’s not necessary, but it helps. And even if you’re not Alaskan, after racing several Iditarods, there’s a good chance you’ll become one. You also have to love the wilderness–the bitter cold wilderness. And, of course, you have to love huskies. You have to love them because it’s the only way–even after all the breeding, raising, training, and fitness regimens–that they’ll pull you a thousand miles through inclement weather across a sometimes difficult-to-find trail.

The musher-dog bond is a mysterious one.

You also have to like being alone–or, at least, alone with the dogs–for days on end. In her book Race Across Alaska, written with Tim Jones, 1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles describes stopping on the way to the Elim checkpoint to rest and give her dogs and herself a snack. After feeding her dogs lamb and eating some trail mix and moose jerky herself, she contemplates the still night.

Then I sat on the sled with the light off, enjoying the darkness and the silence. A part of me wanted life to be like this always: just me and my dogs, alone in this vast, silent country, our goals always sure, living out of the sled day after day. This was the most seductive feature of the Iditarod, the reason I would come back time and time again, despite all the suffering that went along with it: this intimacy I had with those fine animals…and with the magnificent land of Alaska.

And so these mushers come back, time and time again, and along with them come the rookies, some of whom will, perhaps, learn what they have learned and come to feel what they have felt, the inextricable bond between the musher, the dogs, and the land.

Below, in alphabetical order, are some of the most notable mushers in Iditarod history. An “x” preceding a name indicates a musher entered in the 2013 race.

John Baker

x-John Baker: Fifty-year-old John Baker was born, and currently lives in, Kotzebue, Alaska. Of Inupiat descent, Baker won the 2011 Iditarod with a record-breaking time of 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds, besting Martin Buser’s previous record by three hours. He is the first native Alaskan to win the Iditarod since Jerry Riley took first place in 1976. Since completing his first Iditarod in 1996, Baker has finished 13 races. He has placed in the top ten in all but three of them. His website can be found at www.teamjohnbaker.com

Martin Buser

x-Martin Buser:  Martin Buser was born in 1958 in Winterthur, Switzerland. He is a four-time Iditarod champion, winning in 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2002. Buser moved to Alaska in 1979 to train and race huskies. He entered his first Iditarod in 1980. With his 2002 win, he held the fastest finishing time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds until John Baker broke his record in 2011. Following his 2002 win, Buser became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He owns Happy Trails Kennels in Big Lake, Alaska.  The website can be found at www.buserdog.com

Susan Butcher

Susan Butcher: Susan Butcher was a four-time Iditarod champion, winning in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1990. With her 1986 victory, she became the second woman to win the Iditarod. She then went on to dominate the race in the late 1980s. Butcher was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moved to Alaska in 1973. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and died in 2006 at the age of 51. In 2008, Governor Sarah Palin signed a bill making the first Saturday in March in Alaska “Susan Butcher Day,” coinciding with the Iditarod’s ceremonial start.

Carl Huntington

Carl Huntington: Carl Huntington mushed to victory in the second Iditarod in 1974, becoming the race’s first native Alaskan winner. He finished in 20 days, 15 hours, 2 minutes, and 7 seconds. Born in Galena in the Alaskan interior, he is of Athabaskan descent.

DeeDee Jonrowe

x-DeeDee Jonrowe:  One of the Iditarod’s most popular mushers, DeeDee Jonrowe is a  three-time Iditarod runner-up. She holds the fastest time for a woman, completing her 1998 race in 9 days, 8 hours, 26 minutes, and 10 seconds. She has finished 28 Iditarods and placed in the top ten 15 times. Born in 1953 in Frankfurt, Germany, her father was a United States Army officer stationed overseas. Her family moved to Alaska in 1971. Jonrowe competed in her first Iditarod in 1980.

Part of what makes Jonrowe so popular with fans is her remarkable resilience on and off the trail. In 1996, she survived a car accident outside of Fairbanks that killed her grandmother and injured her and her husband. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, underwent a double mastectomy, and went on to compete in the 2003 race just four weeks after completing chemotherapy. She is married to Mike Jonrowe. The couple lives in Willow, Alaska. DeeDee’s website is  at www.deedeejonrowe.com

Jeff King

x-Jeff King: Jeff King belongs to the elite group of four-time Iditarod champions, winning in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006. He also won the Yukon Quest, another 1000-mile-plus sled-dog race, in 1989. With his 2006 win, King became, at age 50, the oldest musher to win the Iditarod. The 57-year-old King was born in North Fork, California. He moved to Alaska in 1975 and began racing in 1976. He lives in Denali, Alaska. The website for his Husky Homestead Kennel can be found at www.huskyhomestead.com

Dick Mackey

Dick Mackey: Dick Mackey competed in the first Iditarod in 1973. He won the closest ever Iditarod race in 1978, beating Rick Swenson by a mere one second. His winning time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes, and 24 seconds. He is the father of Iditarod champions Lance Mackey and Rick Mackey.

Lance Mackey

x-Lance Mackey: Forty-two-year-old Lance Mackey holds the record for consecutive Iditarod wins, with four in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. He also won four consecutive Yukon Quests in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. In 2007, Mackey became the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. He did it again in 2008. These stunning accomplishments happened after Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001. He scratched from the 2002 Iditarod and took a year off to recover before coming back to train for, and eventually dominate, the race. His father is Dick Mackey. His half-brother, Rick, won the 1983 Iditarod. Mackey lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. The website for his Comeback Kennel can be found at  www.mackeyscomebackkennel.com

Emmitt Peters

Emmitt Peters: Emmitt Peters was born in 1940 in the interior Alaskan town of Ruby. He is of Athabaskan descent. While still a rookie in 1975, he became the second native Alaskan to win the Iditarod, breaking the previous speed record by six days. His winning time was 14 days, 14 hours, 43 minutes, and 45 seconds. Peters earned the nickname “The Yukon Fox” because, according to him, “I’d sneak away from all my competitors and have five or six teams chasing me.” He completed 25 Iditarods.

Libby Riddles

Libby Riddles: In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod, with a finishing time of 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds. Facing some of the worst weather in Iditarod history, she won by mushing alone into a fierce blizzard on Norton Sound. Riddles was born in 1956 in Madison, Wisconsin. She moved to Alaska at 16. Her website is at  www.libbyriddles.com

Dallas Seavey

x-Dallas Seavey: Dallas Seavey is the youngest Iditarod champion, winning the 2012 race at the age of 25. His winning time was 9 days, 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 26 seconds. He is the son of Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion, and the grandson of Dan Seavey.

Dan Seavey

Dan Seavey: Dan Seavey competed in the first Iditarod in 1973, finishing third with a time of 20 days, 14 hours, 35 minutes, and 16 seconds. He was instrumental in helping Joe Redington Sr. organize the first race. He is the father of Mitch Seavey and the grandfather of Dallas Seavey. Last year, at the age of 74, Seavey ran in his fifth Iditarod wearing bib number 100 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail. He is originally from Red Wing, Minnesota.

Mitch Seavey

x-Mitch Seavey: The son of Dan Seavey and the father of Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey won the 2004 Iditarod with a time of of 9 days, 12 hours, 20 minutes, and 22 seconds. He competed in his first Iditarod in 1982 and has run every race since 1995. In 2008, he won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, setting a new record with a time of 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds. Seavey lives in Sterling, Alaska.

Mary Shields

Mary Shields:  In 1974, Mary Shields became the first woman to complete an Iditarod, placing 23rd. Today she gives tours of her home and her huskies in the Goldstream Valley, north of Fairbanks. www.maryshields.com

Robert Sorlie

Robert Sorlie: From Hurdal, Norway, the 52-year-old Sorlie is the only non-American to win the Iditarod, coming in first in 2003. He won again in 2005.

Rick Swenson

Rick Swenson: Rick Swenson is the winnningest musher in Iditarod history, with five wins in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1991, earning him the title “King of the Iditarod.” He is also the only musher to win in three separate decades. Until Dallas Seavey’s 2012 victory, he was the youngest musher to win the Iditarod at the age of 26. Swenson has completed 26 Iditarods. In 1978, he came in second in the closest Iditarod finish ever, losing to Dick Mackey by one second. Swenson moved to Alaska in 1973 from Willmar, Minnesota. He currently lives in Two Rivers.

Doug Swingley

Doug Swingley: Doug Swingley has won the Iditarod four times, in 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2001. He is the only winner from the lower-48 states. He lives in Lincoln, Montana. He married Melanie Shirilla under the Burled Arch in Nome in 2002.

Dick Wilmarth

Dick Wilmarth: A miner and trapper from Red Devil, Alaska, Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod in 1973. His winning time was 20 days, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds. His part of the purse amounted to $12,000. Wilmarth later said that first race was not really a sled dog race but “a time to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness with friends.” He never competed in another Iditarod.

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Anatomy of a Dog Sled

Sled Diagram

Sleds used in the Iditarod come in many designs, shapes, and sizes and are made from various natural and synthetic materials. Traditionally, and for the first Iditarod in 1973, sleds were made entirely of wood, typically birch. A few of today’s indigenous mushers still make their own sleds the way their ancestors have for centuries. However, most mushers today purchase commercial dog sleds. Such sleds have become pretty hi-tech over the years, utilizing toboggan-style designs, stanchions reinforced with carbon fiber or fiberglass, and even pull-down seats or collapsing handle bars. They can cost thousands of dollars. However, the basic parts of a professional dog sled remain pretty much the same. Above is a diagram showing the different parts of a sled. Here are some brief descriptions of the parts:

Brush Bow: An arched piece of heavy plastic or wood at the front of the sled that acts as a bumper. In a collision with a tree, snow bank, or other sled, the brush bow receives the shock of the impact and keeps the rest of the sled from being damaged.

Stanchions: Vertical pieces of wood between the runners and top rails, forming the framework upon which the rest of the sled is built.

Top Rail: Curved pieces of wood along the top of the sled that hold the stanchions in place and form the top of the cargo basket.

Cargo Basket: As the name suggests, this is where a musher stores his or her supplies while on the trail. A heavy-duty nylon sled bag fits over the basket to protect supplies. The basket is large enough for a musher to sleep in, using the sled bag as a tent to protect from bad weather. Also, if a dog gets sick or injured on the trail, a musher can carry the dog in the basket to the next checkpoint. You’ll often hear the expression “dog in basket” or “dog in bag.”

Runners: Two long strips at the bottom of the sled that slide along the snow, ice, or dirt (yes, dirt!). The runners extend beyond the back of the sled for the musher to stand on. Runners are made of wood or metal and topped by strips of plastic to protect them and help them slide more easily over the snow. The strips of plastic can be removed and replaced when they become worn or damaged.

Foot Boards: Strips of rubber or plastic that fit on the back of the runners for mushers to stand on. They give the musher traction so he or she won’t slip off.

Handle Bar: Arched piece of wood or metal at the back of the sled extending from the runners and forming the highest point of the sled. Used by the musher to hold onto the sled and steer. Tired mushers on the trail have been known to tie themselves to the handle bar so they won’t slide off the sled if they fall asleep.

Claw Brake: A spring-action steel claw that attaches to the rear of the sled brace running from front to back. It is positioned between the musher’s feet. When the musher steps on the brake, the claw digs into the snow, causing the sled to slow down (but not come to a full stop).

Snow Hook (not shown): A large steel or aluminum hook that attaches to the sled with a rope or other line and is used to anchor the sled when stopped. It looks something like a big two-pronged fish hook. Snow hooks are designed to dig into the snow when pulled to keep the dogs from running away with the sled. A horizontal piece between the two prongs allows the musher to dig the hook into the snow with a heel or pull it out with a hand. Snow hooks can also be anchored to a tree to keep the dog team and sled in place. Some mushers have snow hook holders attached to their sleds to keep the hook in place when not in use.

Next up: Who are these crazy mushers who dare to tackle the Iditarod, anyway?

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Dogs On the Line

Karen Ramstead

Karen Ramstead with her Siberian huskies. Fine Art America/Donna Quante

SLED DOG POSITIONS

You’ve probably seen a photo or video of Iditarod sled dogs pulling a musher across the frozen tundra or through a snow-capped forest. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see them in the flesh…er…the fur. What you may not know is that each sled-dog pair plays a different role in navigating the sometimes difficult trails and challenging terrain faced by racing teams.

The dogs are positioned in pairs on either side of a gangline, or towline, that attaches to their harnesses and to the sled. Iditarod rules state that a musher may start a race with a maximum of 16 dogs and a minimum of 12 dogs on the gangline. At least six dogs must be on the line at the finish of the race. Most Iditarod mushers will start the race with the maximum. More dogs = more pulling power.

Sled Dog Positions

Here are brief descriptions of each position pair:

Lead dogs: Perhaps the most critical part of the team, lead dogs set the pace and keep the other dogs on the trail. They are the dogs that respond to the musher’s commands of “gee” (right turn) and “haw” (left turn). Lead dogs must be alert and intelligent so they can find and follow the trail when it is covered over with snow. They do so through smell, sensing where other teams have passed, and feel, by feeling with their feet the packed trail beneath the loose snow covering. They also keep the other dogs in the team moving by pulling the gangline taut. In the past, some Iditarod mushers used only one lead dog. Today, it is more common to see two.

Swing (or point) dogs: Positioned directly behind the lead dogs, the swing dogs help steer the team around corners. As lead dogs make a turn, it is not uncommon for the other dogs to want to jump off the trail to follow them. The swing dogs pull the team in an arc that keeps the other dogs on the trail and brings the sled and musher safely around a corner.

Team dogs: These are the team’s brawn. They pull the sled and maintain speed. On average, Iditarod sled dogs pull 300 to 500 pounds (including sled, supplies, and musher). There are several pairs of team dogs, depending on the size of the sled-dog team.

Wheel dogs: These are the two dogs closest to the sled. They are usually the largest of the dogs because they are the first to take on the weight of the load being pulled, especially during starts and climbs. Wheel dogs should be even-tempered as they must withstand the constant slamming of the sled runners behind them.

It is not uncommon for mushers to switch their dogs’ positions during a race. Some dogs make better leaders in certain weather conditions but not others. Sometimes, after a long run, a musher may wish to give a lead dog a break. Dogs who are fighting may need to be split up, or a female in heat may need to be moved away from the males. Sometimes during a race, after a few dogs have been dropped and a team becomes smaller, a single lead dog may be used instead of two.

Dogs with booties

Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! AP Photo/Al Grillo

SHAKE YOUR BOOTIES

During a race, you will often see the dogs wearing colorful booties on their feet. These booties protect the dogs’ feet from the abrasive snow or ice that can damage paw pads or get between toes and cause discomfort during a long-distance race. Booties are generally made of sturdy materials such as polar fleece, nylon, or canvas. Two pieces are sewn together to form a pocket that slips over the dog’s foot and are held in place by Velcro or electrical tape. Iditarod rules stipulate that a musher have at least eight pairs of booties for each dog at all times, although dogs will usually go through a lot more than this over the course of a race.

TRAIL MIX

The average Iditarod sled dog burns 12,000 calories a day on the trail, so dogs must be regularly fed and given frequent snacks at checkpoints. Food is the fuel that keeps the dogs’ engines going. Before the race, mushers arrange to have bags of dog food shipped to the various checkpoints along the trail. Each musher comes up with his or her own special formula, relying heavily on high-protein fats, oils, and other nutrients. Chopped up red meat, fish, and beaver are often used. Native mushers sometimes use seal blubber. The meats are usually mixed with a commercial dry dog food and water, or other liquid, then heated in a cooker into a kind of gruel. The liquid keeps the dogs hydrated (it is impractical to give dogs plain water in freezing temperatures, and most huskies won’t drink water in winter anyway). Snacks generally consist of individual pieces of frozen meat, such as whitefish.

Feeding sled dog

Yum! The Anchorage Daily News/Bob Hallinen

UG5CRRKESP7D

 

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Iditadogs: Dogs of the Iditarod

Running Iditarod Dogs

© Alaska Iditarod Tours

When most people think of sled dogs, they think of Alaskan Malamutes or Siberian Huskies, two purebred dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club. Indeed, both breeds were used as sled dogs for years in Alaska, and a handful of mushers, such as Karen Ramstead, still race purebred Siberians. However, the favored dog of today’s Iditarod champions is the Alaskan Husky, a type of mixed-breed dog made up of Malamute, Siberian Husky, and several other breeds.

Malamute

Alaskan Malamute

The word “Malamute” comes from the Mahlemut tribe, an Inupiat tribe of northwestern Alaska, now commonly called the Kobuk. Mahlemuts favored these sturdy dogs because of their great hunting and pulling capabilities. Large and muscular, Malamutes were later used as sled dogs for hauling freight during Alaska’s gold rush era and as search-and-rescue dogs in World War II. Admiral Byrd used Malamutes on his South Pole expedition.

Siberian Husky

Siberian husky

Alaskan Malamutes won the first major sled-dog race in Alaska, the 1908 All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a 400-mile run from Nome to Candle and back. At the time, it was thought these hefty haulers also made the best racing dogs. However, another kind of dog introduced to Alaska by Russian traders in the early twentieth century, the smaller and faster Siberian husky, soon began to dominate the race. John “Iron Man” Johnson used Siberians to set a course record in 1910: 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 22 seconds. Leonhard Seppala also used Siberian in his three All-Alaska victories. Siberian huskies, it seemed, were the new top dog in sled-dog racing.

Meanwhile, native villagers of the Alaskan interior had been mixing new lineages composed of Malamute, Siberian husky, and other breeds of hunting and working dogs. Initially called “Indian dogs,” these mixed breeds were smaller and sleeker than Siberians, with longer legs and sturdy feet for running on the abrasive snow and ice. Non-native racers began to take notice when Athabascan mushers such as Johnny Allen and Gareth Wright started winning races with their “mongrels.” Wright’s dogs were said to be half Siberian husky, a quarter wolf, and a quarter Irish Setter.

Alaskan Huskies

Two Alaskan huskies enjoying some well-deserved rest

As the purebreds became less and less competitive, more non-native mushers turned to mixed breeds, which today fall under the generic term “Alaskan husky.” Considered a type of dog rather than a pure breed, Alaskan huskies are not recognized by the American Kennel Club. However, they have become synonymous with the term “sled dog” and are the most widely used dog in the Iditarod.

John Suter's Poodles

John Suter mushing his poodles

A few mushers have been known to race more exotic breeds. For example, John Suter began racing poodles in the mid-1970s. Although he received a great deal of media attention, Suter was unable to obtain sponsorship with his all-poodle team. They were not deemed competitive, and their thin coats made them susceptible to hypothermia. Suter finally declared his “experiment” a failure in 1990 and began using Alaskan Huskies. Race officials subsequently stipulated that dogs entered in the Iditarod must be of the northern breeds used to arctic conditions.

Many of today’s top mushers own their own kennels. Those without kennels must buy their dogs from elsewhere, oftentimes from other mushers, who generally raise around 50 dogs at a time. During the early part of training, mushers and handlers look for certain traits in their dogs—physical traits, mental traits, temperament—that indicate a dog’s capacity for distance-running. You will sometimes hear mushers or others involved in sled-dog racing refer to a dog’s “head,” by which they mean attitude. Dogs with good head—healthy, happy, intelligent, enthusiastic—are considered ideal for long-distance sled-dog racing.

Lance Mackey and his dogs

Lance Mackey and his dogs, Rev and Maple, celebrate Mackey’s fourth consecutive Iditarod win in 2010. AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Bob Hallinen

My next post will be about the makeup of sled-dog teams and what the dogs are typically fed on the trail.

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The Iditarod Trail

Map of the Iditarod Trail

Iditarod Trail (map shows northern and southern routes). © 2008 Iditarod Trail Committee

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:

  1. To involve the southern villages in the race.
  2. To include the historic gold rush town of Iditarod.
  3. 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:

  1. One 24-hour rest, to be taken at a checkpoint of the musher’s choosing. Most mushers take this long rest at McGrath.
  2. 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).
  3. 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!

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A Brief History of the Iditarod

Dog sled arriving in Knik carrying gold from Iditarod, January 12, 1912. Library of Congress

Dog sled arriving in Knik carrying gold from Iditarod, January 12, 1912. Library of Congress

Parts of the historic Iditarod Trail had been used by Native Alaskan dog drivers for centuries, but the 1000-plus mile route associated with today’s race came about largely as a result of Alaska’s gold rush in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally called the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, it ran from the southern shipping port of Seward north through the Alaskan interior and on up to Nome on the Bering Sea Coast. The trail connected the various settlements, trading posts, and mining camps that popped up as prospectors from around the world descended on Alaska, making it possible to move people and freight and deliver mail. Explorers, surveyors, and prospectors had learned from the region’s indigenous groups that sled dogs were the most reliable means of transport during winter months. The trail became associated with the town of Iditarod after a gold strike there on Christmas Day, 1908. (The word ‘iditarod’ is an Anglicized version of the Ingalik word ‘haiditarod,’ meaning ‘distant place.’)

That same year, the first official sled-dog race in Alaska, the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, was held in Nome. The race ran from Nome to Candle and back, a distance of over 400 miles. One of its winningest mushers was Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala. Seppala came to Nome during the gold rush there in 1900 and worked for a company sledding freight and supplies. He won the race three times, in 1915, 1916, and 1917.

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala with his lead dog Togo

However, Seppala is more famously remembered for participating in what came to be known as the Great Serum Run of 1925. The winter of that year, a diphtheria outbreak in Nome threatened the city’s population, especially its indigenous inhabitants who had never been exposed to the disease. The last ship into the port before it froze over did not include a critical supply of antitoxin that had been ordered. With the only two airplane pilots capable of navigating the dangerous Alaskan winter weather traveling out-of-state, the Iditarod Trail became the only means of access to Nome. Relay teams of mushers and sled dogs were set up to transport serum from Nulato, in the east, to Nome. Seppala mushed the longest stretch of this run and subsequently became something of a legend in Alaska.

Dorothy Page

Dorothy Page, the “Mother of the Iditarod”

During World War II, the U.S. Army used sled dogs for transport and search-and-rescue missions. But after the introduction of the snowmobile in the 1960s, dog sledding was on the wane, even in the native villages. The Iditarod Trail had fallen into disuse. Then a New Mexico transplant named Dorothy Page, an avid fan of sled-dog racing, came up with the idea of putting together a race to commemorate the centennial of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia. Initially, Page had little luck getting dog mushers interested. She then approached Joe Redington Sr. Redington was one of the last dog sled freighters. He had worked for the U.S. Army doing search-and-rescue missions and salvaging airplanes that had gone down in the Alaskan interior. Like Page, Redington wanted to preserve sled-dog culture. Since the 1950s, he had been lobbying to make the Iditarod Trail a national historic trail, and he felt a commemorative race would help bring attention to his efforts.

The first race was held in February of 1967 and ran 25 miles across a stretch of the old Iditarod Trail between Wasilla and Redington’s hometown of Knik. Leonhard Seppala was invited to be the race’s honorary marshal. Tragically, Seppala died shortly before the race took place. The race was named in his honor, the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race.

Joe Redington

Joe Redington Sr., the “Father of the Iditarod”

By 1969, interest in this short precursor to the Iditarod had diminished. But Redington was determined to keep both dog mushing culture and the Iditarod Trail alive. He wanted to establish a longer, more ambitious race, one that would involve the interior villages where sled dogs had been used for so long. With the help of other mushers, including Dick Mackey and Dan Seavey, Redington organized the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It ran over 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.

The first race got underway on March 3, 1973 (each year the Iditarod begins on the first Saturday in March). No one knew what to expect. Many believed the mushers might not survive the long trek through the Alaskan wilderness. Both Mackey and Seavey competed. Redington had intended to compete, but as money for the race fell short, he was forced to engage in some last-minute fundraising to help make up a shortfall in the promised $50,000  purse (he had already mortgaged his home in Knik to keep the race alive).

The first Iditarod was dedicated to the memory of Leonhard Seppala. Bib #1 was reserved in Seppala’s honor from 1973 through 1980. (Since 1980, bib #1 has been reserved for individuals, both mushers and non-mushers, who have made significant contributions to sled-dog racing.)

Dick Wilmarth, a miner and trapper from Red Devil, would go on to win the first race. It took him 20 days, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds. (Compare this to John Baker’s 2011 record-setting race of 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds.) The $50,000 purse was split up among the top twenty finishers. Wilmarth received $12,000.

Dick Wilmarth

Dick Wilmarth after winning the first Iditarod in 1973.
Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc.

Wilmarth would later described that first race as less a competitive sled-dog race than “a chance to spend time with friends in the wilderness.” When it was discovered at the last minute that no finish line had been put up in Nome, a quick thinker grabbed a package of Kool-Aid and poured a line in the snow across Front Street. There was only one veterinarian for 34 dog teams. (The 2013 race will have 52 veterinarians spread out among the various checkpoints.)

Over the years, the Iditarod has become a more organized, competitive race. Today’s mushers have learned from the early trailblazers how to handle the treacherous topography and unpredictable weather faced on the trail. Care and feeding of the dogs has practically become a science. Winning times have been cut by more than half and a handful of mushers have upped the ante with multiple wins. Rick Swenson holds the record with five Iditarod wins.

The purse for the race has increased too, though not by much–at least not by American sporting standards. This year’s purse is $600,000, to be split among the first 30 finishers. The winner will receive about $50,000 and a brand new truck. Only the most famous mushers are able to make a living off sled-dog racing, and even they must rely on corporate sponsorship and year-round promotion. Mushers do it for the love of dog sledding, not for the money.

The names Redington, Mackey, and Seavey will become familiar in this blog. The children and grandchildren of three of the men who helped make the race possible carry on its legacy. Joe Redington’s son, Raymie, and grandsons, Ray and Ryan, have all competed in the Iditarod. Mitch Seavey, son of Dan Seavey, won his second Iditarod this year. Mitch’s son Dallas won last year’s race. The two men have the distinction of becoming the oldest and youngest Iditarod winners. Lance Mackey, Dick Mackey’s son, is the only Iditarod champion to win four consecutive races, in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. Dick Mackey and Lance’s brother, Rick, are also Iditarod champions. Dick won the closest Iditarod race ever, beating Rick Swenson by one second in 1978.

Also in 1978: the federal government designated the Iditarod Trail a National Historic Trail. Joe Redington finally got his wish.

Redington died in 1999.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will feature a map of the race trail and discussion of some of its nastier features. And, yes, in an upcoming post I’ll talk about the dogs.

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