Alaska – Alyeska – Day 4 The Iditarod (It’s a dog’s life)

Anchorage across the Bay

Anchorage across the Bay

I was suprised how many people didn’t know what the Iditarod is so instead of dedicating this post to my experience at the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod, I am going to give you a brief history of its inception and evolution.

Alaska to this day is largly inexssible by cars and/or trucks; even more so when we purchased the land from Russia in 1867. Dog sledding was the only means to get things the land couldn’t supply, and although Alaska is naturally rich beyond words things like medicine had to get in and gold had to get out. The natives of the region have been mushing since at least 2000 BCE. Yes, people were in North America before the Pilgrams. To be fair it most likely started as a recreation, but as with computers in the late 70’s, fun soon became funtional. For the next four thousand years or so dog sledding evolved into the primary means of conveyance through snowy landscapes to brutal for many other pack animals to withstand as Robert Falcon Scott learned with finality when he perished during his 1911 bid to be the first to reach the South Pole. His competitor, Roald Amundsen, succeeded using sled dogs.

There are many varieties of sled dogs such as the Siberian Husky, Alaskan MalamuteCanadian Inuit Dog, and Greenland Dog. Mongrels are perfect acceptable to use, and during the Yukon Gold Rush were the norm. To be a good sled dog the animal should feature a very dense double coat, wide padded feet, erect ears, a curled tail, wedge-shaped head, and a muscular build.

In Alaskan mushers came from all walks of life, from hunters to preachers, until 1920 with the advent and proliferation of the airplane. Mushing still held sway as a matter of day to day functionality until the “iron dog” or snowmobile arrived. With the1960’s debut of the snowmobile, dog sledding went into serious decline.

Most of us know the story of the 1925 dyptheria epidemic in Nome Alaska which inspired a Disney animated movie, and the brave lead dog Balto who brought the 20 pound cylindar of anitoxin and saved the town. This is a bit of a misnomer since the serium was carried by train and several dog teams from Anchorage to Nome. Most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo to be the real heros of the story since they covered the farthest distance (91 miles) over the harshest terrain. In an effort to give credit where credit is due Dorothy G. Page founded and ran the first Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in 1967.engineblurry

The race, held outside Anchorage, ran 25 miles, paid $25,000, and attracted 58 mushers. The following year the race was cancelled due to lack of snow and lack of interest largely due to the minscule purse of $1,000. A compatriot of Dorothy’s, Joe Reddington, would not be easily disuaded, and in 1973 with the help of two school teachers held the first Iditarod as we recongnize it today. While there have been changes to the race throughout the years, including variations of check points, different restart locations, and every-other-year alternation of a southern/northern route, the race is as it was in 1973. It spans between 1000 and 1,200 miles depending on the route from Seward to Nome and is typically completed in nine to fourteen days. This year was won by Mitch Seavey and his lead dog Tanner on the southern route in 9 days, 07:39:56. This was his fourteenth Iditarod, his second win, and he is the oldest musher to come in first at 53 years of age. He won $50,400 plus new Dodge Ram 4×4 (estimated value: $40,000). Most modern teams cost $10,000 to $40,000, and the top 10 spend between $80,000 and $100,000 per year.

I was close enough this team kicked snow up on my lens.

I was close enough this team kicked snow up on my lens.

The Ceremonial Start begins on the first Saturday in March, at the first checkpoint on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage. A five-block section of the street is barricaded off as a staging area. Snow is stockpiled and shipped in by truck the night before to cover the route to the first checkpoint. You could hear hundreds of dogs yipping and chomping at the preverbal bit. These dog will burn an estimated 12,000 calories a day and cover about 100 miles a day. The air is electric for the mushers and their dogs since this is the only portion of the race in  a urban setting and one of the few times there are spectators cheering them on. They also handed out free hot chocolate on the street. It was delicious.  The first competitor leaves at 10:02 and each team follows, separated by two-minute intervals. The start order is determined during a banquet held two days prior by the mushers drawing their numbers for starting position. Selections are made in the order of musher registrations.

(Link to video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IresMDvH8Us)

The Iditarod is called the last great race on earth and I am inclined to agree. These people and their dogs are some of the most amazing athletes I have ever had the opportunity to witness.

The Iditarod is not-for-profit. Please feel free to get more information and donate at http://iditarod.com/

Drive fast, take chances, thanks for reading.

-Danger

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