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Dog sleds were once the primary source of winter transport in the 49th state. However, with the coming of the snowmobile (or snowmachine in Alaska-speak), it looked like dog teams were on their way out of favor for most Alaskans. Technology seemed about to triumph over tradition when a few people, most notably Joe Redington of Knik, decided to rejuvenate sled dog use and racing. In 1973, Joe and a few others organized the 1,100 mile long Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race from Anchorage to Nome commemorating the 1925 life-saving team of brave mushers who raced diphtheria serum to Nome. This race seemed to renew interest in the Alaskan sled dog tradition, and before long more and more people were raising, running and racing sled dogs again. (By the way, mushers are adamant about the proper name of the sport-it's sled dog racing, not dog sled racing.)
From humble beginnings, the Iditarod has become world famous, gathering contestants and press notice from around the world. The race starts in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March, and ends when the last musher crosses the finish line in Nome. Along the way, mushers travel through mountains, over frozen rivers and through passes, stopping at Native villages along the way that serve as checkpoints where the dogs are fed, rested, and examined by race veterinarians before they continue on. And although the Iditarod is the most famous sled dog race in the world, it's only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, when it comes to the official state sport of dog racing, or dog mushing as it's also known.
Besides the big name long distance races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, there are scores of races all over the state whenever there's snow on the ground. Starting in November and running through March, there's most likely a dog racing event somewhere in the state nearly every weekend. Besides the middle distance races that serve as qualifiers for the longer races, there are shorter distance races and sprint races. (In dog racing terms, a 200-300 mile race is considered middle distance!) These races are held all season long, and some of the more accessible races are the Copper Basin 300 at Lake Louise near Glennallen, and the Tustumena 200 on the Kenai Peninsula. Throw in junior races and club races as well, and you can readily see the tremendous resurgence of dog racing all over the state.
Even if you're visiting in the racing off-season, you can stop by some of the racing kennels for demonstrations and rides on the ingenious wheeled vehicles devised for off-season training runs. Mushers train and run their dogs year-round to keep them in shape and to sort out their teams for the upcoming season.
Summer visitors to Juneau can take a helicopter ride with either of two tour companies that will fly you onto a glacier on the Juneau Icefield where a dog mushing camp is set up. You can visit the mushers and their dogs, learn some of the rudiments and commands of mushing, and then take off for a short run, driving the team under the guidance of an experienced dog handler.
The other major long distance race is the Yukon Quest that runs from Fairbanks to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. The Quest starts in Fairbanks on even numbered years and Whitehorse odd numbered years, covering 1,000 miles of very remote country. Unlike the Iditarod, where the race leaves the road system very shortly after leaving the Anchorage area, most of the Quest checkpoints are road accessible, affording spectators and volunteers a chance to see what goes on "behind the scenes" in a big race.
During the Fur Rendezvous celebration held in Anchorage in February, the World Championship Sled Dog Race attracts the cream of the sprint racing crop from around the country. All along the race course, enthusiastic fans cheer on their favorite mushers and dog teams from easily accessible vantage points.
There are a couple of ways to get more involved than standing on the sidelines and watching. In the last several years, a number of entrepreneurs have begun to offer sled dog rides to the general public. For the more serious adventurer, daily and weekly sled dog trips are also offered in and around Denali National Park, Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula. Backcountry trips allow the visitor to try it all from driving the sled to caring for the dogs and winter camping or staying at a remote lodge. These experiences range from a short ride in the sled up to and including traveling the entire length of the Iditarod trail, mushing dogs and learning a way of life all but forgotten.
If you want to be a knowledgeable observer and not branded immediately as a "cheechako" or greenhorn, it helps to be aware of the commands the musher uses and the names and positions of the members of the team. Unlike racing horses, there are no reins or other mechanical connections between musher and dog for transmitting the musher's wishes to the dogs- it's all done by voice. Basic commands include "Hike" to get going, "Whoa" to stop, "Gee" to turn right, and "Haw" to turn left. In a dog team, the dogs first in line are the lead dogs, followed immediately by the two swing dogs. The wheel dogs are the ones just in front of the sled, and any animals in between wheel and swing are the team dogs.
If you want to get even more involved, all of the races make extensive use of volunteer labor, and you can sign up for any number of jobs where you'll learn to handle dogs, provide help in setting up and taking down race courses, work in communications or computers-the possibilities are numerous. Long distance races like the Iditarod and the Quest especially depend on a small army of volunteers to help administer the race, and prior knowledge of dog racing is not required. No matter what your age or level of physical fitness, there's something you can do to help and be a part of this spectacular Alaskan enterprise. Of course if you have specialized knowledge, all the better, but there's literally room for everyone where volunteers are concerned.
Sled dog mushing is a throwback to simpler times when Alaskans and their beloved teams of dogs explored the far reaches of wilderness. Today the tradition lives on, thanks to the hundreds of dog racing aficionados and the corps of fans and volunteers who support them.
For Alaska Visitor Information write to: Dept. 712, P.O. Box 196710, Anchorage AK 99519-6710,
call (800) 862-5275.
For more information on race schedules, volunteer information, etc., contact:
Alaska Dog Mushers Association
P.O. Box 70662 Fairbanks AK 99707
Alaska Sled Dog and Racing Association & Jr Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association.
P.O. Box 110569 Anchorage, Alaska 99511
Phone/Fax: 907-562-2235 E-mail: email@example.com
Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association. Two Rivers AK
Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race Fairbanks AK
Phone: 907-452-7954 Fax: 907-452-7959
Iditarod Trail Committee
PO Box 870800 Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0800
Phone: 907-376-5155 Fax: 907-373-6998
Anchorage Fur Rendezvous
Phone: 907-274-1177 Fax: 907-277-2199
Tom Reale is a travel and outdoors writer and guidebook author who lives and works in Anchorage.
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372