The Iditarod Route and History in Alaska
Warren Jones' Yupik name is Mairaq, and he is Gwich’in, Yup’ik, and Inupiaq. His family comes from Nenana, Hooper Bay, and Nome. He was born in Bethel, Alaska, and spent his early childhood in Nome. He now lives in Anchorage with his wife and children, and studies Indigenous philosophy with a focus on the culture and worldview of the Circumpolar North.
Poodles aren’t the first dogs we think of when the topic of dog mushing comes up. Yet, during the late eighties and early nineties, Alaska transplant John Suter enjoyed some fame for mushing poodles in Alaska’s Iditarod, the long-distance sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome held each March. Suter completed the race multiple times with his team, and even appeared on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson with his lead dog Umiat–which is plural for Umiak, a skin-covered boat used in the north. In the end, the race changed its rules because, while poodles are clearly capable of running the race, they are not suited for it the way dogs from the north are.
Alaska Sled Dogs
The breeds most often associated with dog mushing are the Alaskan Malemute, and the Siberian husky. The Alaskan Malamute is a working breed that originates with the Indigenous people of Alaska. Stout and broad chested with thick fur, malamutes are not the fast-running dogs typically preferred for the kinds of sprint races we see today but were extremely valuable for the people of the Arctic. Malamutes are one of the oldest known breeds.
The Siberian husky is a smaller and faster breed. While Malamutes can weigh in excess of 75 pounds, the Siberian husky averages 60 pounds at its heaviest. These smaller dogs are much more suited for sprint-style races but are also capable of the long haul to Nome. As the name suggests the Siberian husky originates from Siberia.
History of Sled Dogs
Draft animals, trained to do heavy work, played an important role in human history. In the north, the sled dog was able to haul loads over terrain and environmental conditions in which other draft animals would struggle. Dogs played multiple roles. Some were used for herding, others hunting, and of course as companions– and for protection from bears.
The sled dog played a critical role in the surveying and western exploration of Alaska well into the 1900s. Before planes and boats, it was dog teams that moved freight and supplies around the north. Dogs played this role long before Westerners reached Alaska. For Indigenous peoples, they were the only reliable way to move people and goods through Alaska, and first settlers and explorers in Alaska followed suit.
Growing up in Nome, the Iditarod was a big event not just for our community, but for all the other communities the race passes through. Every year, we would watch the ceremonial start and track the mushers and their teams through the race. The Iditarod trail is roughly based on a series of ancient trails the people of the region used and followed for thousands of years. It spans many traditional territories and vastly different landscapes—from thick woods to tundra and taiga—through mountain passes and over hills, along rivers and even crossing the ocean ice for a long stretch.
The Iditarod has a ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city, and then formally starts in Willow, a day later. The early part of the race moves through Dena'ina land. It passes through tiny communities like Yetna, through what is known as “moose alley” to Skwenta, and Finger Lake (also known as Winter Lake). Each of these communities offer accommodations year-round, as well as during the Iditarod.
The trail follows the Happy River Gorge to Rainy Pass, one of the most dangerous checkpoints of the Iditarod. The elevation of the pass is 3200 feet and, from here, the teams navigate the steep Dalzell Gorge to Rohn. This checkpoint has no year-round human inhabitants. Historically, it was part of an original mail route with cabins available for mail carriers and their dogs to stop and rest. Rohn comes to life during the Iditarod with mushers, media, and winter hunters searching for bison.
The race enters the Upper Kuskokwim region and the next stop is Nikolai or Edze Dochak' in the area’s Athabaskan dialect. Nikolai is a community of 89 and is the first Alaska Native village on the trail. After Nikolai is McGrath or Tochak’, another larger Upper Kuskokwim village that serves as a small hub for the region. This area was historically a meeting and trading place and maintained that status during the gold rush. McGrath has a hotel, public library, museum, bars, and a larger grocery store, and is one of the race stops offering accommodations for Iditarod fans.
Takotna or Tochotno’ is the next checkpoint and is well known for its hospitality during the race. Many of the mushers choose this as their 24-hour stop. It is a nice quiet checkpoint, as the community has no lodging for reporters and fans. Takotna is famous among racers for its pies and, during the course of the race, many pies are made by locals and consumed by thankful racers.
A bit farther, Ophir was once a small mining community but is now a ghost town. A cabin a mile outside of the original community serves as a checkpoint during the Iditarod. The race has two different routes and, from Ophir, the race diverges between the northern and southern routes.
The Northern RoutE
The northern route takes us to Cripple which, on the northern route, is considered the middle point of the race. Cripple is an old mining town but has no year-round population. The first Iditarod musher to reach this point gets the halfway trophy and a small prize awarded in gold nuggets. After Cripple, the mushers move from Upper Kuskokwim to Koyukon territory to Ruby or Tl'aa'ologhe, a small Koyukon Athabascan community on the south bank of the Yukon River. After Ruby, the race moves along the trail to Galena or Notaalee Denh, another Koyukon village situated on the north bank of the Yukon River. The final stop before the northern and southern routes converge is Nulato or Noolaaghe Doh, a Koyukon community. Nulato was once a trading site between Athabascans and Inupiaq people and is one of two Alaska Native communities that participate in a Stickdance ceremony that honors the dead (also in March).
The Southern Route
Iditarod, Alaska, the namesake of the Iditarod race takes its name from the Iditarod River, and is derived from Deg’Hitan Athabascan word Haidilatna, meaning “distant place.” Iditarod, the town, once had over 10,000 people after gold was found in the district. This is the halfway point on the race’s southern route where the halfway trophy and gold nugget prize is awarded. Now a ghost town, Iditarod comes to life for a short time during the sled dog race. Now, on the southern route, we move into Deg’Hitan territory. The village of Shageluk, or Łeggi Jitno’ in the local dialect, sits on the banks of the Innoko River and is the first inhabited village on this race route.
Our next stop is Anvik. The word Anvik is Central Yup'ik, but it is a Deg’Hitan community. Locals refer to the community as Deloy Ges. Anvik is the first checkpoint on the Yukon River, and the trail follows a winter snowmachine route between Anvik and Grayling. Doogh Qinag is the Holikachuk name for Grayling, and this is the last community for quite a stretch as the next stop is not a community, but just a checkpoint called Eagle Island.
According to a musher in the 1997 Iditarod, “The local wolf packs howl all night to vent their indignation at all of their uninvited cousins intruding on their territory. You can rest assured you and your fellow mushers and checkpoint personnel are almost the only living humans in an area larger than many entire states. If you’re running the race to get away from it all, then this will be your favorite checkpoint. In any case, it’s a welcome respite in the wilderness, and you’ll be more than happy to stop there for a while.”
To The Coast
From the Eagle Island checkpoint, both routes converge on Kaltag. Here, we return to Koyukon lands and the name in the local dialect is Ggaał Doh. Kaltag is one of the two communities that share the celebration of the Stickdance mentioned earlier, and the ceremony alternates between Nulato and Kaltag. From Kaltag, the race heads to the coast.
Unalakleet or Uŋalaqłiq is an Inupiaq community located where the mouth of the Unalakleet River pours into Norton Sound. This was historically one of the trade communities between the coast and the Interior, and the race follows the ancient portage between Kaltag and Unalakleet. This is one of the larger communities on the trail with a population of 768 and is also a major logistics hubs for the race. Unalakleet has accommodations, a restaurant, and a grocery store. The first musher to arrive to Unalakleet receives a smaller gold nugget award and a carved sled.
Here in Inupiaq territory, the next community is Shaktoolik, population 215, known as Saktuliq. After Shaktoolik, the mushers head out onto the ice of Norton Sound, one of the most difficult stretches of the race. The winds blow hard and total whiteout conditions can make distinguishing land from sky impossible. After the 50-mile crossing over the ice, the mushers head into Koyuk or Kuuyuk, another small Inupiaq community along the coast.
The following checkpoint is Elim, another coastal community with a mixture of Yup'ik (Elim is Neviarcaurluq in Central Yup'ik) and Inupiaq (Nivviaqhchauġluq). This is a quiet checkpoint and, like many checkpoints, it is mostly locals welcoming the mushers who are on the last leg of the race.
From Elim, we head to Golovin, a community of 175 people originally named Chiŋik in Inupiaq. It now bears the name of Golovin after Vasily Golovnin, a Russian navigator. From here mushers spill out into Golvnin Bay on their way to White Mountain, Nutchirviq in Inupiaq, named after the nearby mountain. This is the last community before the end of the race and here all mushers must take a mandatory 8-hour rest before the final stretch of the race. After resting, the mushers head towards Safety.
There is no stretch of the race that isn’t potentially dangerous, but this can be one of the worst in inclement weather. If the weather is cooperating, this is a nice easy run. If the wind picks up, it howls through blowholes, natural wind tunnels along the route, and mushers who lose the trail can quickly find themselves on the sea ice where open ocean lurks not far off the shore. Many mushers have dropped out of the Iditarod this close to the finish line but, if they make it through, the Safety checkpoint awaits.
At Safety Roadhouse, mushers pick up their bibs for the 22-mile stretch to the finish line. Safety isn’t a community, but there are many summer cabins in the area, and this is one of the places I would spend my childhood summers. From here, mushers travel along the coast towards Nome. The race is now on its final stretch.
Sitŋasuaq or Nome is the largest community in this region. The Nome region has a long and storied history. There were people living all over this region for thousands of years and multiple distinct Inupiaq groups continue to reside in Nome today.
The people of Solomon or Erok lived near the Safety checkpoint, just a few miles away. Those who lived in Solomon moved to Nome when the BIA shut down their school and the post office closed. Fifty-seven miles outside of Nome is Council, originally a seasonal camp for the Fish River Tribe where folks still maintain cabins and fish camps. The people of King Island also live in Nome. King Island’s children were forced to go to Nome for school and, within a few years, the entire community followed them to Nome which, today, they call home.
Nome, Solomon, and Council were all bustling communities during the gold rush. Council had an estimated 15,000 people in the region at one point, and Solomon numbered in the thousands too. Nome, once the largest city in Alaska with an official population of 12,488, probably had upwards of 20,000 people during the gold boom years. Wyatt Earp was one of many people who lived in Nome at the time. Today, Council nor Solomon have no current year-round residents (although there are plans to do so) and Nome has a population of 3,643.
Nome has a few hotel and B&B accommodations, bars, restaurants, and several grocery stores and gift shops. During the Iditarod, the community is bustling. Locals and race fans keep track of the race checkpoint by checkpoint, and many fly in just to cheer on their favorites. The community waits for the mushers to come down Front Street to the finish line where The Burled Arch marks the finish line, the prize purse, and the end of the Last Great Race.
For 50 years, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race has been, arguably, Alaska’s most well-known sporting event. Even today, some of the dogs and people that run the Iditarod race are descended from the original mushers in Alaska. However, what is now a sport, was once one of the primary modes of travel in the state. The Iditarod race was created to honor that history.
Learn more about the Iditarod, including how you can experience this event for yourself.
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