Mushing Mania

February kicks off mushing season in Alaska, with festivals and races that are legendary worldwide. Here’s how to have an adventure with these animal athletes any time of year.

Once the anchor is loose, you feel the quiet. The sled’s runners shush across the snow and harnesses click in time to the team’s pace. Like magic, the dogs instantly stop their excited barking when the musher says “hike” and start to pull, ears up, tongues wagging. You feel their excitement and desire to see what’s over the next hill.

Dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport, but it’s so much more than that. Mushing is so entwined in Alaska’s history, it’s almost impossible to think about the state without thinking of the dogs.

Dogs played a significant role in many Arctic, Interior, and western Alaska Native cultures. Traditionally used for transportation and hunting, dogs guarded families and communities. Later, non-Native trappers, miners, and explorers adopted sled dogs for long-distance travel, hauling supplies, and delivering mail across the Last Frontier. Over time, the big, heavy Alaskan malamutes used for pulling freight were replaced by smaller, sleeker Alaskan huskies built for speed.

Perhaps the most famous dog sled “race” happened in 1925, when a deadly diphtheria epidemic hit Nome. Lifesaving serum was delivered to Nenana, on the rail line in Interior Alaska, but dogs were needed to carry the medicine on to Nome. Over six days, 20 mushers and 150 dogs traveled 674 miles, saving the town from a potentially devastating epidemic. Today, a statue honoring Balto, the lead dog of the team that brought the serum to Nome, stands at the corner of 4th Avenue and D Street in Anchorage, the ceremonial starting point of the Iditarod sled dog race.

The modern Iditarod, which began in 1973, follows sections of the historic Iditarod trail connecting Seward and Nome. The race’s ceremonial start is always held the first Saturday in March, coinciding with Fur Rondy, Anchorage’s premier winter carnival. Mushers and their 16-dog teams wind their way through the streets of downtown Anchorage to the cheers of race fans from around the world.

Like any good athlete, Alaska’s sled dogs must train for long distance events like the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile race between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks held in early February. Mushers test team dynamics – as well as their own skills - in mid-distance, qualifying races like the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel and Copper Basin 300 in Gakona in January. Not to be out-raced by their long-distance cousins, sprint dogs take to the trails for shorter-distance races like the Open World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage and the Open North America Championship in Fairbanks in February and March.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a professional musher to enjoy time on the trails behind a team of sled dogs. In winter, outfitters can take a one-hour tour for a quick taste of the trail, or learn how to mush with a team of your own during guided, multi-day expeditions in Alaska’s remote wilderness. These pups love to run…and may just run away with your heart.

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