All About the Iditarod
Beginning with a ceremonial start in Anchorage the first Saturday in March and, a day later, an official start 70 miles north in Willow, the Iditarod journeys nearly 1,000 miles of unforgiving, rugged, and breathtaking terrain to Nome. An exhilarating experience for mushers, sled dogs, and viewers alike, the race is, as Rob Urbach (president and CEO of the Iditarod Trail Committee) describes it: “the pulse of the state.” You’ll be hard pressed to find anything more thrilling – and quintessentially Alaskan – than the Iditarod.
The name Iditarod comes from the Deg Xinag and Holikachuk languages of the Athabascan people of Interior Alaska, meaning distant or distant place. It’s not only the name of a trail, but also the name of a former town and a river in the same region.
The race spans the Alaska and Kuskokwim Mountain ranges and follows the Yukon River for 150 miles. Mushers endure crossing frozen waterways and pack ice in Norton Sound, often completing the race in as little as 8 days.
History of The Iditarod
In 1925, The Great Race of Mercy gained notoriety for its critical role in delivering medicine via sled dog during the Nome diphtheria epidemic. Sled dogs were brought out of near retirement when all other transportation routes failed to deliver the much-needed serum to Nome’s sick and dying children, including air transport and railway.
Mushers and sled dogs endured temperatures circling -80 degrees F, with complete whiteout conditions and unstable ice crossings. Against all odds, and through the work of 20 mushers – two-thirds of them Indigenous Peoples – and 150 sled dogs, the Serum Run was successful in delivering antitoxins to treat the sick children of the 10,000-person town. The epic journey has been chronicled for decades through film, and is best known today for its heroic dogs, namely Balto and Togo, and their owner Leonhard Seppala.
While the Iditarod trail does not follow the same trail and is not a recreation of the Serum Run, the events that transpired have long resonated – even in modern memory – with the significance of dog sledding in Alaska and other northern regions. In 2021, Larry Daughtery paid homage to The Great Race of Mercy of 1925, by carrying empty vials of COVID-19 vaccine through the race in a symbolic gesture. The history of the Iditarod extends far beyond the modern day, into a rich history of tradition of Alaska Native and other Indigenous Peoples. Click here to read more about the rich history of the Iditarod.
The Iditarod Today
Despite a 10,000-year history of sled dogs and mushers working side by side, by the mid 1960’s, the use of sled dogs was almost non-existent. Modern transportation developments like snow machines had negated the need for mushing – even in far reaching Alaska Native villages – leaving the tradition at risk.
Inspired by Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Page – commonly referred to as the mother and father of the Iditarod – the revival of dog mushing began. Using old gold rush trails and trails from the 1925 Serum Run, the race began in 1967 and was just 25 miles. While this race originally commemorated Alaska Day, the Iditarod became official in 1973.
Today, the race is often referred to as The Last Great Race, covering over 1,000 miles and has two routes: northern and southern. Both routes cover sections of the 1910 mail route (a route used today for mail on occasion), spanning 352 miles from Anchorage to Orphir, but diverging at that point and later connecting in Kaltag (346 miles from Nome). The routes alternate each year and were created to reduce damage to the trails.
Around 50 mushers and their teams participate each year, with large crowds gathering in Anchorage for the ceremonial start, and smaller crowds traveling to Willow to watch the teams officially take off, villages like Galena to visit checkpoints, and on to Nome to cheer on the teams as they cross the finish line. The iconic event is met with not only crowds, but with local events and activities as well. The Red Lantern award is given to the last musher to cross the finish line as a symbol of perseverance.
Sled Dogs in Alaska
The unique genetic makeup of the sled dogs allows them to cross vast distances with incredible endurance. In fact, scientists estimate that man and sled dog have journeyed side by side for over 10,000 years. Only northern dog breeds are allowed to compete. Living off a diet of rich proteins and healthy fats, sled dogs are able to regulate body heat to levels that other dogs cannot.
Additionally, they have unique undercoats, paws, bone structure and even blood vessels which help them endure the exertion and extreme cold with ease. Not only are they fast, they are extremely strong! Their robust bones and lean muscle propel them anywhere from 10-20 mph, which they can sustain for 100 miles without rest.
The relationship between musher and sled dog dates back a millennia as archeological evidence points to a bond so close that man and dog were even buried together some 8,000 years ago. Today, mushers and those at the Iditarod go to great lengths to make sure their dogs are cared for. As if waking up each day to live your best life wasn’t enough, sled dogs enjoy massage, extensive veterinary and medical care, and rich and sustainable diets as a part of the competition.
The Iditarod Experience
Enjoying the Iditarod couldn’t be easier! Here are some ways you can experience the Iditarod either in person or from home.
The Iditarod wouldn’t be possible without its volunteers. There are over 1,500 volunteers that continue to return every year! Most come from out of state and plan each year around their volunteer work. Dog handlers, veterinary team visitors, security, trail breakers, communications, cooks, those helping with logistics, and even support on the trails are all ways to not just experience the Iditarod but to become an actual part of the race.
The Iditarod even has its own air force! Men and women from across the globe donate their time and use their own planes to deliver supplies and goods at all checkpoints, as well as transport people, teams, and dogs to where they need to be.
Put your name in the raffle to ride at the Ceremonial Start
Enter to win a ride at the start of the Iditarod in a musher of your choice’s sled basket! This fundraiser allows several lucky winners to receive an 11-mile ride with a musher at the Ceremonial Start of the race in downtown Anchorage.
Tour the Iditarod
Many tour companies offer Iditarod specific packages, usually by air or snowmachine, so that you can watch your favorite team from up close on their way to Nome.
The Mushers Banquet
The Thursday prior to the start of the race at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage is where the mushers draw their starting order. There’s a plated dinner and all of the mushers are there for you to meet and greet! You can purchase Iditarod merchandise, hear details of the upcoming event, and bid on silent and live auction prizes. These often include musher-signed race bibs!
Take a Dog Sled Tour year-round
Dog sled tours are available throughout the state year-round! Visiting a dog kennel will get you up close to some of the very teams used in the Iditarod. You’ll be able to meet dogs, mushers, and even the next generation of future teams (puppies)! Some tours bring you and the team on glaciers via sled, even in the summer. Others use sleds with wheels as an alternative to snow covered trails. These can be a great option for families with younger children as the cold won’t interfere with any of the fun.
Visit the Iditarod headquarters
View the race from home 24/7, as footage from drones, helicopters, and live cams give everyone a glimpse into the epic experience of the Iditarod, even from the comfort of your own home!
Whether you’re able to experience this incredible race first-hand as a viewer, volunteer, musher, or as a fan from home, there is no doubt about it: The Iditarod lives up to its name and all the hype that comes with it!
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