Iditarod Cometh

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The Iditarod starts this Saturday.

When it comes to famous annual events in Alaska, if you have heard of any of them, you have heard of this.

The Iditarod is a dog sled race that starts in Anchorage and goes to Nome, Alaska.  Dog mushers start with 16 dogs on pulling their sled and after passing a number of checkpoints, required stops, vet checks, and 1000 of the most grueling terriane and bad weather Alaska has to offer arrive in the small Bearing Sea coastal town 8 to 10 days later.  This year, 68 competitors are planning to start the race, and based on averages a third of them won’t make it to Nome and half the dogs will be left behind with handlers at some point during the race.  Finishers are treated like champions in their own right, with one of the major awards, the “Red Latern”, given to the last to make it in.  Winners are moved to Alaskan folk lore status, and not just the mushers but the dogs as well – many of the lead dogs are memorialized.

I plan on doing a few blogs on the race, but thought I would start with a history lesson to get you interested (or bored) — then come this weekend I can fill in with the fun stuff.

Started in 1973, the race was begun as a rememberance to mushers of the past.  Many of the coastal communities along the Bearing Sea are iced in, and have no roads heading back to other communities.  Before airplanes and snow machines, locals relied on dog sleds to cover any significant distance.  Back during the Alaskan gold days, miners and prospectors used sleds to get from southern towns like Seward and Anchorage to where the gold was at.  The trail they took was known as the Iditarod Trail after the gold town of Iditarod (derived from a Native American word for ‘Far Distant Place’) which sat halfway between Nome and Anchorage and is now a ghost town.  Roadhouses sprung up every 15 to 30 miles along a main trail that ran northwest out of the Anchorage area.  This led to dog sled being the main form of winter transportation. 

Prior to the race, the most famous use of the trail was in 1925 when a diptheria epidemic threatened Nome, and serum was only available in Seward (a town south of Anchorage).  The only planes in the area were unable to make the trip and the train stopped 675 miles short of Nome.  So the dogs took over, and 5-1/2 days later the serum arrived.  Mushers remember Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who covered the roughest ground and the longest distance of the run, but Gunnar Kaasen is remembered for running the last leg into Nome led by the pup of legend “Balto”.  At that time, the US had seen over 20,000 deaths nationwide from diptheria but the publicity from that run caused a great increase in inoculations nearly wiping out the disease all together.

While a modern musher is equipted with GPS, advanced breeding techniques, scientific feeding formulas, and all the amenities one can stuff on a dog sled – the musher life isn’t so far removed from the days of old that they lose touch with what it was.  They will still cross the same harsh, untaimed terrain.  Still see winds and snow so heavy you can’t see the front of your pack.  Still trust the furry friends in front of them as much as they trust you. 

And it all starts on Saturday.

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