As the winter starts to get into the deep of it, Alaska becomes the source of some very unique winter events. Today began one of those events. The Iron Dog.
The Iron Dog is the worlds longest snowmobile race. Snow mobiles (aka Snow Machines, aka Ski-doo) for the uneducated — or those where you never see snow — are vehicles that look similar to low sitting motorcycles with skis at the front used for steering and a track on the back used for power. They are best plowing through fresh snow and are primary off-road vehicles, performing poorly where snow is cleared (I mean … they are made for snow, that’s the point).
Snowmobiles are not just this fun off-road toy. Alaska is pockmarked with towns and villages well off of the road system, and getting around during the winter requires either a snowmobile or a dog sled (more on the dog sled in a couple weeks). For as long as they have been available, many communities see snowmobiles as the main transport during the winter between towns, and far more reliable than air planes or boats. Sometimes that means folks have to go hundreds of miles on one of those things, which is typically giving you no more protection from the elements other than a laughable windshield and grips that make heavy gloves comfortable. But with anything, when you have people that rely on a means of transportation, you can’t help to wonder who can do it faster.
While snowmobile races can be bigger or faster in other places, none are longer than the Iron Dog. The race starts in Big Lake, AK (a town about 15 miles by plane from Anchorage and 90 miles by car) and heads northwest. It crosses over the mountains and catches a bit of the Yukon river until it finds the Bering Sea / Norton Sound Coast until reaching Nome. Then it backtracks to the east a ways until it picks up the river again and heads up to North Pole until cutting up to a finish in Fairbanks. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well – that’s 2031 miles. The event is so extreme that the race requires you to run in a team of two, so if something happens you have a teammate to take care of you. It’s not out of the question to see temperatures around -20°F (-30°C) and whiteout conditions.
Racers are required to pack a Tent or a Bivy sack, 5lbs of tools, a First Aid kit, and must also have studded tracks and an extreme cold rated sleeping bag. It has become popular for racers to vacuum package their sleeping bags into bricks to save space. There are checkpoints every so often, usually 100 miles or less between each one (longest stretch being about 115 miles). At those points racers typically pick up fuel and water (or other drink, dehydration is a major problem on the race) as a minimum but could end up staying the night at those places too. At key points, racers are required to be off trail for a specific time, including a mandatory layover in Nome for 48 hours. Race time for winners is usually around 36 hours, but the whole event takes a week to complete.
Thirty-six (36) teams left this morning from Big Lake and six (6) teams have made it to McGrath, almost 300 miles into the race in just 8 hours. Some are struggling, the last place team hasn’t made it to the Putilla, or 150 miles in. In early are most of the teams expected to be leaders. Most of the racers are Alaskans racing modified stock sleds (mostly built up suspension for longevity, weight reduction steps, and larger fuel tanks). Nearly all of them are the furthest thing from celebrities (except for one – a 4 time winner and favorite to win this year Todd Palin, husband of the ex-Governor and only racer in the Iron Dog once portrayed on Saturday Night Live). There isn’t a lot to be made from the race. Most race just to see if they can do it. Some do it for the rural fans, who will come up to see racers come through by the hundreds in the middle of the night.
So that race goes on for the next couple of days. As it ends a far more famous race follows much of the same route starting just a couple weeks from now. But we’ll save that one for later.