The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is arguably the biggest sled-dog race in the world. Held every year during the first weeks of March, mushers and their dog teams brave treacherous conditions like blizzards, extreme winds and temperatures far below freezing to race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. The exciting race is the most popular sporting event in the state of Alaska and it starts tomorrow, March 2. Learn everything you need to know about the Iditarod so you’ll be ready to enjoy the 2013 event.
The race always starts in Anchorage, Alaska, on the first Saturday in March. The first musher starts the race at 10 a.m., and each other musher follows, one at a time, in two-minute intervals. (The order in which the mushers proceed is determined at a banquet two days before the start of the race.) The entire first day of the race is essentially ceremonial, and doesn’t count toward the final race time. The race restarts for real the next day at 2 p.m., with the mushers proceeding in the same order used during the ceremonial start.
The race begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome, and the beginning and end of the trail always follow the same route. The middle portion of the route diverges into the northern route and the southern route. Mushers follow the northern route on even-numbered years, and they take the southern route on odd-numbered years. For the first few years of the race’s history, the northern route was employed exclusively, but the choice to alternate between the two routes was established to more evenly distribute the impact the race has on the small towns along the way.
There are 26 checkpoints along the northern route and 27 along the southern route. The mushers purchase supplies in Anchorage before the race, and these supplies are sent ahead to each of the checkpoints. For the most part, the route is the same each year (other than the northern/southern divergence), but depending on weather conditions, starting points may be moved and checkpoints may be added or dropped. Thus, the exact distance of the race varies slightly from year to year, but it generally remains between 1,050 and 1,150 miles.
WHICH DOG BREEDS RUN THE RACE?
Long before the Iditarod race, the original sled dogs were the precursors to the modern Alaskan Malamutes, which are often still used today. In the early 20th century, Siberian Huskies were first imported into Alaska to be used as sled dogs during the gold rush, and they became the most popular breed for racing. These two breeds make up the majority of Iditarod racing dogs. Other sled-dog breeds include Canadian Inuit Dogs, Chinooks, Greenland Dogs, Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and Tamaskan Dogs.
WHAT IS THE IDITAROD RACE'S HISTORY?
Mushing as a sport — even as a necessary way of transportation — has existed much longer than the Iditarod Trail race itself. Natives used the Iditarod trail for hundreds of years, but it reached its peak use during the gold rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the winters, sled dogs were used to deliver mail and supplies to towns and trading posts. With the advent of airplanes and snowmobiles, the need to use sleds for these purposes died out, but maintaining the practice of mushing as a sport persisted. The first version of the Iditarod race was held in 1967, but it covered only 25 miles and its popularity didn’t catch on. It wasn’t until 1973 that the event we now recognize as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — running 1,000 miles along the historic trail to the town of Nome — was established.
RECORDS CLAIMED BY MUSHERS
First Winner: Dick Wilmarh (1973)
First Female Winner: Libby Riddles (1985)
First Non-Alaskan Winner: Doug Swingley (1995)
First Foreign Winner: Martin Buser, originally from Switzerland (1992)
First Non-U.S.-Resident Winner: Robert Sorlie, from Norway (2003)
First to Win Iditarod and Yukon Quest Races in the Same Year: Lance Mackey (2007)
Fastest Winning Time: John Baker, 8 days 19 hours and 46 minutes (2011)
MORE FAMOUS MUSHERS
In the second year of the Iditarod, Mary Shields became the first woman to complete the race.
Rick Swenon was the first musher to win four times, is the only one to have won five times, and is the only one to have won in three different decades. Other four-time winners are Martin Buser, Susan Butcher, Jeff King, Lance Mackey and Doug Swingley.
Susan Butcher is a legend of the race. She was the second woman to win it. She was the second person to win four times, and the only woman to do so. She is the only musher in the history of the race to come in first or second for five years in a row.
Not only is Lance Mackey the first person to win the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year, 2007, but he repeated the feat the very next year. Mackey is also the third man in his family to win the Iditarod, after his father, Dick, and his brother, Rick.
CRITICISMS OF THE IDITAROD RACE
Some animal rights activists have problems with the race. They maintain that the harsh conditions inherent to the event and the treatment of the dogs amount to abuse. PETA, not surprisingly, is totally against sled-dog racing, and the ASPCA has expressed concern, as well. It is a fact that the race is treacherous, even deadly. It is not uncommon for some dogs to die along the way. In 2010 and 2011, no dogs died during the Iditarod race, and this was considered highly unusual, even a first for the race.
CARING FOR IDITAROD DOGS
Health and safety regulations for the dogs are strict. Medical requirements include the following:
— All dogs must be microchipped.
— Vaccinations must be up to date.
— An EKG heart check and blood tests must be conducted within 30 days of the race.
— Complete pre-race evaluation must be conducted within 14 days of the race.
— Deworming is required within 10 days of the race.
— Random drug tests are conducted to prevent doping of the dogs.
More than 40 vets volunteer to be on hand. During the race, over 10,000 routine checkpoint veterinary examinations are conducted. And this is all in addition to the extensive experience and licensing required of each musher to ensure that the dogs are cared for by experts at all times.
Here are some terms used by mushers and mushing enthusiasts, from Iditarod.com:
Burled Arch: The finish line in Nome
Come Gee! Come Haw!: Commands for 180 degree turns in either direction
Dog in Basket: Tired or injured dog carried in the sled
Double Lead: Two dogs who lead the team side by side
Dropped Dog: A dog that the musher has dropped from his team at a checkpoint. The dog is cared for at the checkpoint until it is flown back to Anchorage to the musher’s handlers.
Gee: Command for right turn
Haw: Command for left turn
Lead Dog or Leader: Dog who runs in front of others. Generally must be both intelligent and fast.
Line Out!: Command to lead dog to pull the team out straight from the sled. Used mostly while hooking dogs into team or unhooking them.
Mush! Hike! All Right! Let’s Go!: Commands to start the team
Neck Line: Line that connects dog’s collar to tow line and between the two collars of a double lead
Overflow: When the ice gets so thick that the water has nowhere to go, it pushes up and over the ice. This overflow often gets a thin layer of ice when the temperature drops making it dangerous to cross.
Pacing: Leading a team with some sort of motorized vehicle that can set the pace at a specific speed.
Pedaling: Pushing the sled with one foot while the other remains on the runner
Rigging: Collection of lines to which dogs are attached. Includes tow line, tug lines and neck lines
Next: Meet More Sled Dog Breeds
IDITAROD TERMINOLOGY (continued)
Runners: The two bottom pieces of the sled which come in contact with the snow. They extend back from the basket for the driver to stand on. Runner bottoms are usually wood, covered with plastic or Teflon. This plastic or Teflon is usually replaced at least once during the race.
Slats: Thin strips of wood which make up the bottom of a wooden sled basket. Note: Toboggan sleds have a sheet of plastic as the bottom for their basket.
Snow Hook or Ice Hook: Heavy piece of metal attached to sled by line. The snow hook is embedded in the snow in order to hold the team and sled for a short period of time.
Snub Line: Rope attached to the sled which is used to tie the sled to a tree or other object
Stake: Metal or wooden post driven into the ground to which a dog is tied
Swing Dog or Dogs: Dog that runs directly behind the leader. Further identified as right or left swing, depending on which side of the tow line he is positioned on. His job is to help “swing” the team in the turns or curves.
Team Dog: Any dog other than those described above
Termination Dust: The first snow that covers the top of the mountain in the fall. So called because this is a sign of the termination of summer in Alaska.
Tether Line: A long chain with shorter pieces of chain extending from it. Used to stake out a team when stakes aren’t available.
Toggles: Small pieces of ivory or wood used by Eskimos to fasten tug lines to harnesses
Trail!: Request for right-of-way on the trail
Tug Line: Line that connects dog’s harness to the tow line
Wheel Dogs or Wheelers: Dogs placed directly in front of the sled. Their job is to pull the sled out and around corners or trees.
Whoa!: Command used to halt the team, accompanied by heavy pressure on the brake