Add to that the temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the IDITAROD. A RACE EXTRAORDINAIRE, a race only possible in Alaska.
From Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and its musher cover over 975 miles in 9 to 17 days.
It has been called the Last Great Race on Earth® and has won worldwide acclaim and interest. German, Spanish, British, Japanese and American film crews have covered the event. Journalists from outdoor magazines, adventure magazines, newspapers and wire services flock to Anchorage and Nome to record the excitement. It’s not just a sled dog race ... it’s a race in which unique men and woman compete. Mushers enter from all walks of life. Fishermen, lawyers, doctors, miners, artists, Natives, Canadians, Swiss, French and others; men and women each with their own story, each with their own reasons for going the distance. It’s a race organized and run primarily by volunteers ... thousands of volunteers...men and women, students and village residents. They man headquarters at Anchorage, Nome and Wasilla. They fly in dog food and supplies. They act as checkers, coordinators, veterinarians and family supporters of each musher.
The race pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska at her best and as each mile is covered, a tribute to Alaska’s past is issued.
The Iditarod is a tie to -- a commemoration of -- that colorful past.
The Iditarod Trail, now a national historic trail, had its beginnings as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and Nome. Mail and supplies went in. Gold came out. All via dog sled. Heroes were made, legends were born.
In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a lifesaving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs.
The Iditarod is a commemoration of those yesterdays, a not-so-distant past that Alaskans honor and are proud of.
Anchorage is the ceremonial starting line -- a city of over 290,000 people, street lights, freeways and traffic. From there the field of dog teams, which varies in number each year, runs to Campbell Airstrip, approximately 20 miles. After a restart the following day in the Matanuska Valley at Willow, the mushers leave the land of highways and bustling activity and head out to the Yentna Station Roadhouse and Skwentna and then up through Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, over the Alaska Range and down the other side to the Kuskokwim River -- Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, Ophir, Cripple, and on to the mighty Yukon at Ruby -- a river highway that takes the teams west through the arctic tundra.
The race route is alternated every other year, one year going north through Cripple, Ruby and Galena, the next year south through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik.
Finally, they’re on the coast -- Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and into Nome where a hero’s welcome is the custom for musher number 1 or 69!
The route encompasses large metropolitan areas and small Native villages. It causes a yearly spurt of activity, increased airplane traffic and excitement to areas otherwise quiet and dormant during the long Alaskan winter. Everyone gets involved from very young school children to the old timers who relive the colorful Alaskan past they’ve known as they watch each musher and his team. The race is an educational opportunity and an economic stimulus to these small Alaskan outposts.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race first ran to Nome in 1973, after two short races on part of the Iditarod Trail in 1967 and 1969. The idea of having a race over the Iditarod Trail was conceived by the late Dorothy G. Page. In 1964, Page was chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial. Her task was to find projects to celebrate the centennial year in 1967.
She was intrigued that dog teams could travel over land that was not accessible by automobile. In the early 1920’s, settlers had come to Alaska following a gold strike. They traveled by boat to the coastal towns of Seward and Knik and from there, by land into the gold fields. The trail they used is today known as The Iditarod Trail, one of the national historic trails designated by the Congress of the United States. In the winter, the only means of travel was by dog team.
The Iditarod Trail soon became the major “thoroughfare” through Alaska. Mail was carried across this trail, people used the trail to get from place to place and supplies were transported via the Iditarod Trail. Priests, ministers and judges traveled between villages via dog team.
All too soon the gold mining began to slack off. People began to go back to where they had come from and suddenly there was less travel on the Iditarod Trail. The use of the airplane in the late 1920’s signaled the beginning of the end for the dog team as a standard mode of transportation, and of course with the airplane carrying the mail, there was less need for land travel. The final blow to the use of the dog team came with the appearance of snowmobiles.
By the mid 60’s, most people in Alaska didn’t even know there was an Iditarod Trail or that dog teams had played a very important part in Alaska’s early settlement. Page, a resident of Wasilla and self-made historian, recognized the importance of an awareness of the use of sled dogs as working animals and of the Iditarod Trail and the important part it played in Alaska’s colorful history.
She presented the possibility of a race over the Iditarod Trail to an enthusiastic Joe Redington Sr., a musher from the Knik area. Soon the Page's and the Redington's began promoting the idea of the Iditarod Race to the extent that Joe and Vi Redington moved to the Knik area from their homestead at Flat Horn Lake and they have never moved back. (Flat Horn Lake is approximately 30 miles out of Knik.)
The Aurora Dog Mushers Club, along with men from the Adult Camp in Sutton helped clear years of over-growth from the first nine miles of the Iditarod Trail in time to put on the first short Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1967. A $25,000 purse was offered in that race, with Joe and Vi Redington donating one acre of their land at Flat Horn Lake adjacent to the Iditarod Trail to help raise the funds. (The land was subdivided into one square foot lots and sold with a deed and special certificate of ownership, raising $10,000 toward the purse.) Contestants from all over Alaska and even two contestants from Massachusetts entered that first Iditarod Race, but a new comer, Isaac Okleasik, from Teller, Alaska, won the race with his team of large working dogs. The short race (approximately 27 miles) was put on again in 1969.
The goal was to have the race go all the way to the ghost town of Iditarod in 1973. However, in 1972, the US Army reopened the trail as a winter exercise and in 1973, the decision was made to take the race the 1,000 plus miles to Nome. Redington and Page were instrumental in getting the first long Iditarod on its way to Nome in 1973, amidst comments that it couldn’t be done. There were many that believed it was crazy to send a bunch of mushers out into the vast uninhabited Alaskan wilderness. But the race went! Twenty-two mushers finished that year. There have been 695 finishers (grand total of 1,902 to cross the finish line) as of 2011. Mushers have come from 23 states, five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, & Australia) and 21 foreign countries (Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Norway, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) have finished the Iditarod since 1973 including 103 women.
The late Dorothy G. Page, the “mother of the Iditarod” is quoted in the October 1979 issue of the Iditarod Runner on her intent for the Iditarod: “To keep the spirit of the Iditarod the same. I don’t ever want to see any high-pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race. We brought the sled dog back and increased the number of mushers. It is really an Alaskan event. I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that. It puts them in touch with the pioneer spirit.”
The race has started in downtown Anchorage since 1983. The 40th Annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will begin on Saturday, March 3, 2012. The teams will leave the start line at the corner of 4th and “D” at two minute intervals, starting at 10 a.m. About 69 teams are expected.
The mushers follow streets and bike trails through Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. From there the dogs are loaded into dog trucks and taken home for the night. While the race actually starts in Anchorage, in 1995, the rules were changed so that the Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip (used to be Eagle River) portion does not count in the overall time to Nome.
On Sunday, March 4 mushers will again line up at the re-start area in Willow, Alaska about 70 miles north of Anchorage. At 2 p.m., the first team will depart on its way to Nome.
From Willow they start on Willow Lake and wind through typical northern forests of birch and spruce, cross frozen swamps and lakes before dropping onto the Big Susitna River and heading toward Yentna Station. The area between Willow Lake and Yentna Station, approximately 45 miles, has been dubbed the world’s longest tail gate party on this day as spectators set up camps with bonfires, banners, food, and sprits to cheer the teams on as they make their way to Nome.
It is impossible to predict the exact day or time that the first musher will cross the finish line in Nome. However, we expect it to be between 8 and 10 days, making it on Monday or Tuesday. Last year’s champion, John Baker, completed the race in 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds.
It takes so much more than a field of willing mushers and anxious sled dogs to run the Iditarod Trail Race. With the annual budget of over 2.5 million dollars, the Iditarod Trail Committee depends on a hard working force of volunteers and supporters to raise the necessary money all year around. Our race sponsors supply over one million dollars in cash donations and/or goods and services. A semi-annual raffle is held as well as an Idita-Rider Musher Auction where bidders place bids of $500-$7,500 on entered mushers to ride in their sled at the Anchorage Ceremonial Start for the first 11 miles. Iditarod gift shops in the Anchorage/Wasilla area sell Iditarod merchandise year round. Merchandise is also sold at the Alaska State Fair and on other special occasions during the year. Banquets are planned in both Anchorage and Nome. This volunteer force and the loyal supporters from both the private and business sectors make the race possible each year.
Information headquarters are set up in Anchorage, Nome and Wasilla during the race to disseminate information and race standings to the public. Volunteers man each of the 20 plus checkpoints, some of whom spend their vacations on the trail. A complex communications net covers the course offering logistical support, emergency communications and an information source for race officials. The “Iditarod Air Force” is a fleet of small privately owned bush planes flown by volunteers, shuttling dog food and mushers’ supplies to each checkpoint, moving veterinarians and race officials up and down the trail, hauling tired dropped dogs back to the major pickup points. A group of veterinarians from all over the United States, and sometimes even from other countries, take time out from their busy practices to assist with dog-care duties along the trail. Trail breakers on snow machines precede the field of mushers, cutting trail, marking trail, packing trail in windswept areas, trying to give each team a safe path to follow.
Without these volunteers, there wouldn’t be a race. Their efforts save the committee thousands of dollars which would be impossible to raise. Their dedication and involvement is what this truly Alaskan event is all about.
Each musher has a different strategy -- some run during the day, some run at night. Each one has a different training schedule and method and his own ideas on dog care, dog stamina and his own personal ability. Each musher has a special diet for feeding and snacking their dogs.
The rules of the race lay out certain regulations. There are pieces of equipment each team must have -- an arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, musher food, dog food and booties for each dog’s feet to protect against cutting ice and hard packed snow injuries.
Mushers spend an entire year getting ready and raising the money needed to get to Nome. Some prepare around a full-time job. In addition to planning the equipment and feeding needs for three weeks on the trail, hundreds of hours and hundreds of miles of training have to be put on each team.
What might have been the most important “sled dog race” that will ever be run in Alaska ended in Nome on February 2, 1925, when Gunner Kaasen drove his tired dog team down an almost deserted First Avenue.
At stake were the lives of countless Nome children who had been exposed to the dread disease, diphtheria. Kaasen was one of the 20 drivers who took part in the record 674 mile relay race from Nenana to Nome. He delivered 300,000 units of antitoxin serum to Dr. Curtis Welch. The serum arrived in Nome in just one week from Anchorage and 127 1/2 hours from Nenana.
It was on January 21, 1925 that Dr. Welch first diagnosed the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and immediately sent telegraph messages to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward and Juneau, asking for help. The only serum in Alaska was found in Anchorage, where Dr. J.B. Beeson had 300,000 units at the Alaska Railroad Hospital. The problem was to get it to Nome in the shortest time possible.
The only two planes available were in Fairbanks and had been dismantled and stored for the winter. A pair of pilots offered to attempt the flight if the planes could be made ready, but it was left to Alaska’s governor to decide. Many thought dog teams were the only reliable answer.
In Juneau, Governor Scott C. Bone decided on dog teams. He ordered an additional supply of antitoxin from Seattle. Then he called on the Northern Commercial Company, as the largest organization in the Yukon River area, to arrange for relay teams. Men of the Army Signal Corps, at their scattered telegraph stations, also assisted.
In Nome, Dr. Welch and the mayor, George Maynard discussed ways to get the serum to Nome. They suggested sending the serum to Nenana by rail and then sending a team to the rail line, or asking a fast team to start the antitoxin down the Tanana and Yukon Rivers and have a team from Nome meet it about half way.
At Anchorage, Dr. Beeson packed the serum in a cylinder, which he wrapped in an insulating quilt. The whole parcel was then tied up in canvas for further protection. The parcel left Anchorage by train on Monday, January 26, in the charge of conductor Frank Knight of the Alaska Railroad. It was at 11 p.m. on Tuesday that the train reached Nenana and Knight turned over the parcel to the first driver, William “Wild Bill” Shannon.
Shannon carried the serum 52 miles to Tolovana, where he handed it over to Dan Green. Green carried it 31 miles to Manley and handed it over to Johnny Folger. Folger went the 28 miles to Fish Lake. Sam Joseph picked it up there and carried it 26 miles to Tanana. Titus Nikoli carried it 34 miles to Kallands and Dave Corning carried it 24 miles to Nine Mile. Edgar Kallands picked it up at Nine Mile and went 30 miles to Kokrines and Harry Pitka carried it another 30 miles to Ruby. Billy McCarty carried it 28 miles to Whiskey Creek and turned it over to Edgar Nollner, who carried it 24 miles to Galena. George Nollner carried it from Galena to Bishop Mountain, 18 miles. Charlie Evans went the 30 miles to Nulato and Tommy Patsy went the next 36 miles to Kaltag. At Kaltag, Jackscrew picked it up and took it 40 miles to Old Woman. Victor Anagick carried it 34 miles to Unalakleet and Myles Gonangnan carried it 40 miles to Shaktoolik. Henry Ivanoff started from Shaktoolik to Golovin with the serum.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome intending to rest at Nulato and return with the serum. But Seppala met Ivanoff outside of Shaktoolik where he took the serum and turned around, heading back for Nome. He carried the serum back over Norton Sound with the thermometer 30 degrees below zero. Seppala had to face into a merciless gale and in the darkness retraced his route across the uncertain ice. When Seppala turned the serum over to Charlie Olson in Golovin, after carrying it 91 miles, he had traveled a total of 260 miles.
Olson turned the serum over to Gunnar Kaasen at Bluff. Kaasen took it the remaining 53 miles to Nome.
Balto, Kaasen's lead dog, owned by Seppala was memorialized with a statue in Central Park in New York City. Seppala always felt that his lead dog, Togo, didn’t get enough recognition for his 260-mile effort. After Togo died, Seppala had him custom mounted and he is now on display at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla. Balto is on display in Cleveland at the Museum of Natural History.
There are names which are automatically associated with the race: