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.
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.
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.
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.