Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More Than Just A Race: Alaska's Iditarod Dog Sled Event

Most of the world knows it as a March dog sled race from Anchorage in South Central Alaska to Nome on the west side of the Far North region.  However it is more than "just a race" to the locals:  this Last Great Race is THE sporting event of the year!  Your bed and breakfast innkeepers would like to provide some basic information about Iditarod and what is involved in this major Alaskan event, and we welcome you to come personally see what this event is all about!

The Iditarod Trail Committee
This group does so much more than host a "small" dog race each year.  This group works relentlessly to round up volunteers as a workforce, raise the $2 million it takes to put on the event, sets up communications and logistics for the race itself, keeps the trail marked and intact during the race, and even spreads education about the sport itself.  The team provides the means for both US and foreign students to watch and track the race, both through the www.iditarod.com website, and through the Teachers On The Trail program which uses the race itself to present real-world problem solving methods.  We can't say enough about this amazing group and all their efforts to keep this landmark event alive!

About Dog Sledding
Popular in most areas of the world with Arctic conditions, dog sledding is both a means of transportation and a recreational sport.  A team of sled dogs are outfitted with harnesses through which tuglines (or ropes that keep the dogs attached to both other team members and the sled) are attached.  These lines route back to the sled at the rear, which carries the musher (or human team captain) and any supplies required for travel.

Like many other instances, this form of transportation and sport has evolved into a series of competitive events, producing fame for the participants, and legions of followers of the spectators.  Much like NASCAR drivers in the lower 48, our mushers and their teams are practically celebrities, making mushing the official state sport.

At the start of any race, a dog sled team may include a large number of animals.  Members of the pack can be removed from the team for whatever reason (injury, exhaustion, etc.), but no new members may be added.  In the case of Iditarod, the teams are made up of 16 dogs at the start of the race.  Dogs may be removed from a team during a race if they encounter health problems, injuries, or exhaustion:  these animals are carried on the sled itself to prearranged "dog drop" locations, at which point the animal(s) are taken to care facilities until after the race (more on this below).  Of course, the goal is to keep the team strong and finish with as many members as possible!  In the case of Iditarod, a team MUST have at least six dogs actively pulling the sled at the race's end for a team to qualify for placement; other races may or may not have similar requirements for finishing.

Photo by Steve Jurveston from Menlo Park, USA through Creative Commons

Iditarod History

The Last Great Race on Earth runs along the trail used by the Athabaskan and Inupiaq peoples long before "foreigners" came to The New World.  This trail would eventually be named Iditarod after one of the towns on this path.  During the Alaskan Gold Rush, miners who arrived from the US mainland discovered the Iditarod trail and used it as their main thoroughfare into the upper reaches of the state. Dog sledding was widely used as the main form of transportation into the outlying regions of the state through the 1950's, the invention of the snowmobile in the 1960's the dog sledding tradition to be abandoned for this faster method of travel.

While there have been a number of other races run along this very trail in the past, the modern-day Iditarod race was begun in 1973 in support of designating the route of our earliest settlers into a National Historic Trail, and to preserve the tradition of mushing.

The popularity and recognition of the event grew after the first female (a long-shot, no less), Libby Riddles, won the race in 1985.  Today, upwards of 100 teams assemble for this popular event each year.  Most are still from the state of Alaska, although some notable teams are from mainland US, Norway, Denmark, Italy, and Austria.  In recent years, a Brazilian and a Jamaican trained to mush the dogs of famed mushers lance Mackey and Vern Halter.

The current record for finishing the race is 8:19:46:39 (Days:Hours:Minutes:Seconds).  This record was set during the 2011 event by the Native Alaskan John Baker.  The race has seen several multi-year winners including Rick Swenson who holds the record of most wins (five times over the course of 15 years), and Lance Mackey who won in four consecutive years from 2007-2010.  The youngest Musher to win the event is Dallas Seavy, a third-generation musher who won this year in 2012; in fact, his father and grandfather were also participating in the race!

The race traditionally starts on the first Saturday in March.  While the event starts earlier than the "start date" for those running (thanks to required classes, registration, and meetings), the dates that will be important for spectators this year are Saturday March 2, 2013 (the Start date) and Sunday March 3, 2013 (the Restart date).

Wait - start and restart?  Why yes.  The Start date is a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage and follows a path through town.  You might actually call this part of the event a "Race Rehearsal," as the time spent running this 11-mile section through town to the foothills, and subsequent 29-mile highway section to the Eagle River in Willow, does not count towards the participants' actual race times.  This section of the race is more for show, and to let the public participate in the excitement of the event itself, as it is easiest for television crews and foreign visitors to be involved where there is ample lodging options and transportation.  It also gives the teams a chance to warm up and make sure everything is running smoothly for the actual race.

The Restart is the actual start of the timed race.  While the Iditarod Headquarters is located in Wasilla, complications in the form of private land ownership and required road crossings has made starting the race here both complicated in acquiring race right-of-ways, and dangerous for the teams.  Therefore the Restart point has been set to a town northwest of Wasilla:  Willow, AK is the last point on the highway where the race can proceed directly into the wilderness.  Teams are transported from Anchorage to Willow on Saturday in preparation for Sunday's Restart, and the race then commences.

When Does It End?
Basically, when the last active racer crosses the finish line, the race has finally ended.  Total finish times are usually within the 9- to 12-day range.  However, any race team finishing with a time longer than 14 days will miss the Awards Banquet on Sunday March 17 in Nome!

As stated at the start of this post, the route runs from Anchorage to Nome and passes through nearly thirty "checkpoint" locations (usually in towns or villages).  At the Start, Restart, and Finish line, thousands of fans and enthusiasts are known to gather to experience the excitement of the event, and activities are televised from these locations.  Some spectators can even fly in or take snowmobiles to the various checkpoint locations, cheering on the teams as they pass, or welcoming the teams when they stop.

The race is traditionally known to be 1,049 miles - honoring Alaska's status as the 49th state admitted to the US.  However distance variations occur depending on whether the northern or southern route is used, and potential weather adjustments.

Wait - northern or southern route?  Why yes.  Whether you see it as "minimizing impact" or "spreading the wealth," two different routes exist through the Alaskan Interior for the race.  The northern route is run on even-numbered years, and the southern route is run on odd-numbered years.  In 2013, the race will follow the southern route through the town of Ititarod itself (a sentimental bonus for those running), Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island.

What Will The Teams Face?
Mushing teams must be hearty, brave, and strong, as they may encounter sled breakage, injury to musher or dogs, illness, encounters with moose, and a variety of weather and natural conditions.

Alaskan weather in March means potential below-zero temperatures and strong, cold winds making it feel even colder!  The landscape here can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening with mountains, forests, passage over frozen rivers, and long lonely trail between far-reaching populations (often villages of relatively few residents) that can instantly turn from friendly to hazardous.
Luckily, 26-27 checkpoints along the way both help race officials keep track of the racers, and allow the mushers to stop to make sure that their animals are healthy, well-fed with a warm meal cooked over a fire, and tucked into warm straw (which is more insulating than blankets) in outdoor quarters for a few hours or a night to rest.  Oh, and the musher can try to find a warm spot to warm up and nap in the limited, cramped quarters that may be available inside as well (obviously, the dogs have it much better during these stops than the mushers)!  Dog food, people food, and straw for bedding, which the mushers send ahead to specific checkpoints, are waiting for the teams when they arrive and help them continue toward their goal of finishing.  The racers are required to take at least three required rests at checkpoints along the way, including an 8-hour break at a checkpoint along the Yukon River, another at White Mountain, and one 24-hour layover at the location of their choice.

So Why Do It?
Besides the local fame that accompanies the sport, most mushers see the race as a complete challenge: of their mental abilities, team-handling skills, and physical endurance.  Those in the lower 49 may equate Iditarod to a marathon or triathlon, or any other type of extreme race that exists (usually in much more agreeable conditions than sub-freezing weather).  Of course, the cash prizes for the top placers, and the brand new pickup truck that also awaits the winner, are good additional incentives!

What About The Dogs?
Dog sledding often stirs up animal rights groups who say that the racing aspect constitutes abuse to the animals.  However, dog sledding can be equated to horse racing, dressage, and even canine agility competitions.  Dogs are historically bred to work, and of dogs are not allowed to do what they are bred for, they are often unhappy, overweight, and even develop behavioral issues.  In the case of dog sled teams, the dogs are bred and raised as athletes who not only need the exercise, but
show their enthusiasm to race by leaping several feet in the air as soon as they hear their musher coming to the dog team with harnesses in hand!

Photo by Jeff Shcultz at IditarodPhotos.com
Mushers are careful to keep their team healthy - after all, their dogs are just as much a part of their family as human relatives!  The bond between musher and team is strong, and the welfare and health of each animal is even more important to a musher than his own.
Before the race, volunteer veterinarians examine each and every dog for general health and wellness, and to be sure that none of the female team members are pregnant.  During the race, dogs wear booties and coats to help keep them protected from the snow, wind, and cold.  As mentioned above, any animal that is injured or tires out rides in the musher's sled basket until the team reaches a "dog drop" location where the dog is transported by the all-volunteer "Iditarod Airline" to Anchorage for care at Eagle River Women's Correction Center, where a carefully-selected group of inmates care for the dogs until the mushers return to Anchorage to retrieve the animal(s).
There are many more traditions and details that we could cover about the race, but why completely ruin it for those of you who want to learn about, and experience, the race for yourselves?  Member inns of the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska welcome you to our B and Bs in Anchorage (the race Start), Willow (the race Restart), and in Nome (the race's Endpoint).  Those inns that are not on the direct route welcome you to experience the excitement that settles over the entire state during these dates, and offer you a chance to see the televised events from the warmth and comfort of your welcoming lodge or cabin.  So make plans now to visit as our state "awakes from winter slumber" for Iditarod!