Alaska is still buzzing over the crazy finish to the Iditarod dog sled race last Monday night, and while the top finishers were doing interviews, caring for their dogs, and just generally thawing out the race continued. The Iditarod is a timed race, but the clock doesn’t stop when they announce the winner. Finishing the race is as much of an accomplishment as many have ever tried. So the Iditarod has always continued until the last musher leaves the trail. As it happens, there are two symbols of this finish that share the same object — oil lanterns.
The last finisher get’s a prize — not just a portion of the winnings (that is if they finish in the top 30), but a special award called “The Red Lantern”. Started as a joke in the 1950s as part of other non-Iditarod games during the Fur Rondy, many old Alaskan events gave a Red Lantern to a last place finisher matching them up with the caboose of the train who takes up the rear (kind of like the “wooden spoon” or “the participation award” or “The Detroit Lions”). They started giving it to Iditarod mushers who finished last during the race but noticed more and more they were giving it to people who overcame a lot, persevered, and still made it across the finish line when many others didn’t. Now it represents the pride and accomplishment felt by all finishers.
That last finisher also has another duty. The finish line in Nome, AK is an arch or burled wood. The day of the race re-start, an oil lantern is lit and hung from the burled arch. This is called the Widow’s Lantern. In the gold rush days, roadhouses would hang lanterns outside their doors if they knew mushers were on the trail so that they could see in the dark and snow. When the team arrived, the lantern was extinguished – or in those sad cases, it was extinguished when the team didn’t make it. To locals, the signal meant that there was a team on the trail. It get’s it’s name from the women who would push to keep it lit knowing that her husband would make it in. The Widow’s Lantern is lit at the start of the race and remains lit as long as there is a team on the trail; and then is extinguished by the last one to arrive.
As fate would have it, similar to the finish for first place there was a tight race and a record fallen. The Red Lantern was decided by only 35 seconds when Marcelle Fressineau followed Lisbet Norris up the ramp, making the 2 minute gap for 1st & 2nd look huge. Marcelle, a rookie from the Yukon, finished at a little before 8PM AST Saturday night in a time of 13 Days 4 Hours 42 minutes and 8 Seconds. That time was the fastest Red Lantern time by nearly a half hour. In the end she was the 49th finisher, ahead of 20 scratches. While not tall enough to reach the Widow’s lantern, a local official pulled it down to ground level where she turned the wick and watched the flame go out.
Now the clock can start again – 50 more weeks to go until Iditarod 2015.