The Iditarod

Alaska's last great race


It is cold, oh, so cold, and snow is swirling in the fierce wind. The dogs plod on, their rhythmic panting and the steady shhhhh of the sled runners the only sound. The musher stands on the rear of the sled, his face almost completely covered against the bitter cold, his arm crooked around the handlebar so he can doze without falling off. There's a rest stop a few miles ahead at Kaltag, and the team is making good time. In only an hour or so, he can bed down the dogs, sip a cup of hot chocolate, and grab a few hours of real sleep before hitting the trail that crosses the Nulato Hills on the way to Unalakleet.

Then it's less than 270 miles along Norton Sound to Nome, the end of the trail, the end of the adventure.

The musher is one of dozens who started the Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome – officially to commemorate the contributions of courageous mail carriers through the Alaskan interior but in reality an occasion to pit themselves against the elements, to prove their courage and ingenuity in the face of adversity, and to meet the land on its own terms – and to do all three with the company of their dogs.

The Iditarod began in 1967, the centennial celebration year of the purchase of Alaska from Russia, as a project of Joe Reddington Sr. and history buff Dorothy Page. Reddington wanted to revive sled dog racing and the culture it represented and Page was looking for an event to honor the mushers and the dogs who played a large part in the settlement of the state. The race was patterned after the All-Alaska Sweepstakes races held early in the century.

The new race was named the Iditarod Trail Leonhard Seppala Memorial Race to pay tribute to the prospectors who boosted frontier economy by discovering and mining the gold in them thar hills and to mushers who carried diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925 to end an epidemic among the natives in that city. Seppala ran the last leg of the serum journey. Iditarod is a small town in the state's interior, taken from the Eskimo word Haiditarod, meaning a far, distant place. Gold was discovered in a creek near the town in 1908, and the great Alaska gold rush was on.

Each year, the Iditarod begins in early March and runs for a bit more than two weeks. Early finishers cover the 1100 miles in about 9-11 days; the last to cross the finish line take about 15-16 days. The trail is peppered with rest stops where veterinarians check the dogs and mushers leave any dogs that are sick or too tired to continue. Mushers carry limited supplies on their sleds; bush pilots fly dog food to the rest stops. At least three rest stops are mandatory layovers of specific duration, two for eight hours, another for 24 hours.

Temperatures along the trail can run from -40º F to 50º F, and conditions can vary from crisp, clear winter days to blizzards, from snow-covered or icy trails to bare tundra. Wildlife can be a problem; experienced competitor Susan Butcher lost two dogs to a moose that was trapped in a steep-sided portion of the prepared trail and attacked her team.

Once on the trail, dogs settle into a steady trot. The lead dog follows instructions to “gee,” turn right, or “haw,” turn left. The team of up to 16 dogs spreads behind the leader in pairs. The wheel dogs— those closest to the sled— are often the heaviest on the team and bear the burden of the load. The swing dogs— those directly behind the leader— help turn the sled to follow the leader. The team dogs— between the swing pair and the wheel dogs— provide the steady pace that gets the whole shebang from one checkpoint to the next.


The rules

Although the Iditarod celebrates the toughness and pioneer spirit of the mushers, the race is governed by strict rules that protect dogs, handlers, and the integrity of the race. Top consideration is given to the health of the dogs. Every dog death is examined and mushers face discipline if the death is determined to be the result of negligence or cruelty.


Dog welfare

The Iditarod dogs are a conglomeration of mixes known collectively as Alaskan Huskies. These dogs are basically northern stock, bred, born, and raised in some of the toughest climate conditions in the world. They have thick double coats against the cold and wind, big hearts and lungs for stamina, tight feet for hours on the trail, and a desire to run. They are well-conditioned for the race with year-round training and participation in other races during the season.

The rules require the dogs to be maintained in good condition without the use of drugs. Injured, fatigued, or sick dogs must be dropped from the race at a designated dog drop. The musher must file a form when leaving the dog and provide a chain and food for the animal. Dropped dogs are flown to Nome where the musher can pick them up after the race.

Dog harnesses must be non-chafing, and mushers must carry a tie-out cable to secure the dogs at checkpoints.

Cruel and inhumane treatment, defined as any treatment that causes preventable pain or suffering to the dog, is forbidden.

Six dozen mushers fielding teams of 12-16 dogs puts more than 900 dogs on the trail. Generally, fewer than a handful of dogs die in or as a result of the race - a death rate of less than one-half of one percent. The Humane Society of the US and other animal rights groups have attempted to halt the race as inherently cruel, but the Iditarod Trail Committee and individual mushers have focused attention on the welfare of the dogs and the efforts made to keep them healthy and safe.

Dogs that die on the trail must be taken to a checkpoint and the musher must file a report. A necropsy is conducted to determine the cause of death; the race marshal or an appointed judge determines if the musher can continue the race or is disqualified.

If the death is obviously due to heat stress or cruel treatment, or if the musher declined to drop the dog from his team upon advice of a race veterinarian, the musher is disqualified. If the cause of death cannot be determined or was clearly unavoidable, the musher is not penalized.

The rules make the race safer, but they don't make it safe for mushers or dogs. This is a true test of partnership between man and dogs, of the strength of a musher's breeding and training programs, and of man and companion against the harsh Alaska wilderness. A sudden warm spell, a -40 degrees cold snap, a blizzard, or a rampaging moose can change fortunes in a heartbeat.


Race opposition

In 1985, Libby Riddles left Shaktoolik in a blizzard, 229 miles from Nome and the finish line. The other front runners waited out the storm, and Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod. However, her victory, followed by four wins by Susan Butcher, brought turmoil to the honorable race. These two personable and tough women captured the attention of the nation; the publicity drew television coverage and animal rights activists, major sponsors dropped out and network television companies stopped broadcasting the race. The tide has turned in recent years, however; the sponsors are returning and Nature produced Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic for airing on PBS, the public television network.

The activist campaign was led by the Humane Society of the US. HSUS accused mushers and promoters of tolerating cruelty in the raising and training of the dogs and the running of the race itself. The activists cited the culling methods of some marginal mushers (who sometimes clubbed unwanted puppies to death) and the death of two or three dogs on the trail each year. Rather than clean the bad apples out of the barrel, they indicted the whole system as inhumane.

In spite of the precautions and safety rules already built into the Iditarod, the race committee accepted an HSUS representative in hopes of convincing the organization that the race is safe and humane and that the dogs are as eager to participate as the mushers. The activist was successful in getting the committee to tighten the rules further. Then, in 1993 and 1994, several dogs died, some of them from a virus, others from eating spoiled food. (According to one musher, the food had been stored in a warehouse in Anchorage, and an equipment failure had allowed some of it to thaw. Some of the food refroze and was inadvertantly included in the shipments to the checkpoints.) Butcher lost part of her team and retired from racing, ABC's Wide World of Sports dropped coverage, and major sponsors pulled out. Iams, the last big promoter of the Iditarod, ended its participation after the 1995 race.

The turmoil has died down. The Iditarod Trail Committee ousted the HSUS representative and major sponsors Iams and Timberland are gone, but many local, regional, and national businesses have picked up the slack. The 2004 race purse topped $700,000 with support from Cabela's sporting goods, General Communication Inc., Wells Fargo Bank, and dozens of other local, regional and national companies and organizations. Mushers attract their own sponsors as well with hometown companies and dog food manufacturers providing money and goods to help drivers support their teams. Race results may make it into the sports section, or they may not. HSUS and other activist groups moved on to other campaigns as the race lowered its profile. The race goes on, out of the limelight, as mushers and dogs continue to challenge the elements and recapture the gold rush spirit of yesteryear.

There is no doubt that the Iditarod race tests the mettle of man, woman, and dog. It is a challenge in an era when physical trials are all too rare. Those who participate enjoy pushing themselves to the limits and revel in the partnership they build with their dogs. A musher knows his dogs intimately. He learns which dogs have the heart for the big race and which would rather remain in the kennel. He knows which ones can withstand the rigors of the trail and which ones cannot. He is interested in working with his dogs, not punishing them beyond their endurance.

More information, maps, musher biographies and race updates are at The Iditarod. This site is maintained by The Iditarod Trail Committee. Joe Runyan's book: Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers is available from Amazon.com

Iditarod Dreams: A Year in the Life of Alaskan Sled Dog Racer Deedee Jonrowe

Norma Bennett Woolf

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