The Iditarod trail sled dog race pays homage to the “Great Race of Mercy” of 1925, when around 20 mushers and their dogs raced across 674 miles of harsh Alaskan terrain to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to the people in and around the small city of Nome, thereby preventing the inevitable epidemic.
Sled Dog Vocabulary
Participating sled dogs have to be taught to respond to standard commands like:
Hike! (Let’s go)
Haw! (Turn left)
Gee! (Turn right)
On by! (Overtake/Ignore the distraction)
Easy! (Slow down)
The Iditarod trail sled dog race is held on the first Saturday of March, every year since 1973, which celebrates the legacy of mushers. Mushing is the act of transporting people or goods with the help of dogs, and the driver of the dog sled is called a musher. The race involves the musher and his team of dogs to compete not only against other racers, but also against the harsh forces of nature in the tough Alaskan terrain. The route of the race stretches from Anchorage in Alaska all the way to Nome on the western coast of the Bering Sea, and covers a length of around 1,100 miles. Men and women from all walks of life compete in this grueling race. The race is organized by the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, who take charge of the headquarters and provide veterinarians with dog food and other necessary supplies along the way. They also take on the roles of coordinators and supporters of each musher. The race has achieved global acclaim and interest, and is widely followed by film crews and journalists of various establishments of different nationalities.
The Iditarod Trail: Namesake
❖ The race derives its name from the Iditarod trail, which was selected in 1978 as one of the National Historic Trails. The trail itself is named after the small Athabaskan town of Iditarod, which later became a mining district during the local gold rush period. At the end of which, the town was abandoned. The name is thought to have originated from the Athabaskan word “Haiditarod”, which means “distant place”.
❖ Originally, this trail was a mail and supply route, and later during the gold rush period, was also used to transport mined gold. The transport of goods was carried out via mushing. However, since the introduction of snowmobiles in the 1960s, dog sledding was made almost obsolete.
❖ The sport of mushing was popular during the winter season, when the mining towns were shut down. The first mushing competition ever held was the All Alaska Sweepstakes of 1908, initiated by “Scotty” Alexander Allan, and spanning a course of 408 miles from Nome to Candle, and back to Nome. This event introduced the Siberian husky dog breed to Alaska. The Norwegian immigrant, Leonhard Seppala, participated in these games and won them in the years 1915, 1916, and 1917, till they were discontinued in 1918 due to World War I.
❖ In 1925, Leonhard Seppala played a pivotal role in the great serum run to Nome, delivering the diphtheria antitoxin. Since the serum couldn’t be flown in, the 20-pound cylinder containing serum was transported via train from Seward to Nenana. Twenty mushers along with over 150 dogs relayed the serum from Nenana to Nome across a distance of 674 miles. Five and a half days later, the Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto, arrived at Nome with the serum, helping to prevent the outbreak of the diphtheria epidemic. However, most mushers till date consider Leonard Seppala and his lead dog Togo as the true heroes of the run as they were the ones to cover the most hazardous stretch of the route and also to cover the most distance (91 miles) as compared to the other teams.
❖ Dorothy G. Page, wanting to sponsor a dog sled race along the Iditarod trail to honor mushers, enlisted the support of Joe Redington Sr. and organized the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in 1967. It was held near the town of Anchorage for a stretch of 25 miles. This race inspired Redington to orchestrate a race with a route spanning more than 1,000 miles, and along with Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson, he founded the race which is the now popular “Iditarod trail sled dog race”. The pattern of the race was inspired from that of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes race of the past, and was held in 1973 for the first time. Redington is now hailed as the “Father of the Iditarod”, and his main objectives behind setting up the race were – to save the sled dog culture and the dwindling population of Alaskan huskies (due to their replacement by snowmobiles), to preserve the historical value of the trail, and to pay homage to mushers.
❖ The main route, spanning 938 miles from Seward to Nome, was surveyed by Walter Goodwin in 1908. The race starts in Anchorage and follows along parts of the original trail. The race follows two different routes depending on the year. In odd-numbered years, the southern route is used and in even-numbered years, the northern route is used. The northern route runs for 1,112 miles, and the southern route for 1,131 miles. The two routes diverge 444 miles after Anchorage at Ophir and later converge at Kaltag, 441 miles from Nome. Even though the total length of the race varies depending on the route used, the official length of the route is set as 1,049 miles, in order to honor Alaska’s status as the 49th U.S. state.
❖ There are checkpoints scattered all along the route, where the mushers must sign in. They have the option of resting here as well. Another option given to the mushers is to fly in supplies for themselves and their dogs to these checkpoints before the game begins. The checkpoints include three mandatory rests: a 24-hour layover at any checkpoint, a 8-hour stop at any checkpoint along the Yukon river, and a final 8-hour stop at White Mountain.
❖ A ceremonial start is held at the first checkpoint in Anchorage. The race used to start at Mulcahy Park till 1983. Before the race begins, a ribbon-cutting ceremony is held under a display of flags of the different nationalities of the participants. The order in which the race is started is decided beforehand by the competitors drawing numbers. The first musher to cross the start line is a honorary musher, who has contributed to the sport of dog sledding. The competing mushers depart later, at intervals of two minutes, in the predeclared order. This part of the race is not counted as part of the race time, and hence, the mushers can complete this length in a relaxed pace till they reach Eagle River. This is the official restart checkpoint, and the race time is calculated from this point on. The restart takes place the next day, and the mushers depart in the same manner as that of the ceremonial start.
❖ The race ends when the competitors reach the official finish line, which is the Red “Fox” Olson Trail Monument in Nome. The monument has the words “End of Iditarod Sled Dog Race” inscribed on it. However, the race is not over till the very last musher crosses the finish line. A “Widow’s Lamp” is lit at the finish line and not extinguished till the arrival of the last competitor. This tradition stems from the old practice of hanging a lit lamp outside roadhouses when a musher was en route. The last musher to arrive is called the “Red Lantern” and is presented with a token prize of the same name.
❖ The participating mushers are required to participate in at least 3 small races in order to qualify, but are not required to prove their knowledge of mushing in the way of written exams. However, in the event of animal abuse or animal neglect, or if the musher is unfit, the race committee reserves the right to disqualify that team. The overall expense of the musher depends on the cost of the entry fee, the lightweight gear, the musher’s and the dog’s food, veterinary and breeding care, and gear for the dogs. The total expense can be anywhere from between USD 20,000 to USD 100,000.
❖ The widely used dog breeds for this race are the Siberian huskies and the Alaskan malamutes. They are vigorously trained before the race to cope up with the physical exertion of the race. They are trained to run in harsh conditions, and to respond to a basic set of commands. Prior to the race, all dogs are examined by veterinarians to check for the use of illegal drugs, improperly healed wounds, and pregnancy. During the race, the dogs are tracked with the help of microchip implants and collar tags. All dogs must have protective booties on their paws. The checkpoints do not provide physical exams for the dogs, but volunteer veterinarians along the trail may be asked for help. Each musher must keep a veterinary diary of all the dogs in his team and have it checked by veterinarians at each checkpoint. A musher is allowed to have 12-16 dogs in his team, and no more may be added after the start of the race. At the concluding leg of the race, there must be at least 6 dogs harnessed to the sled while crossing the finish line at Nome. Any injured dogs may be dropped at “dog-drop” sites along the way, from where the dogs are flown to Hiland Mountain Correctional Center at Eagle River, to be treated and taken care of till they are picked up.
PenAir Spirit of Alaska – Awarded to the first musher to reach the McGrath checkpoint, who receives a “Spirit Mask” and expense credit from PenAir for travel and freight shipments.
GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award – Given to the first musher to reach the halfway checkpoint, in honor of the late Dorothy Page. He receives a trophy and $3000 in gold nuggets.
Millennium Alaskan Hotel First Musher to the Yukon Award – Given to the first musher to reach the Yukon river checkpoint. The award is a luxurious and expensive five-course meal along with $3,500 presented on a gold pan accompanied by a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne.
Bristol Bay Native Corporation Fish First Award – Presented to the first musher to reach Galena. He receives a $1,000 check, 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon, and a commemorative jacket.
Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award – Awarded to the first musher to reach the Gold Coast.
Jerry Austin Rookie of the Year Award – Presented to the best musher competing in the Iditarod for the first time. He receives a trophy and a check for $1,500.
Horizon lines Most Improved Musher Award – Awarded to the musher who has improved his last performance the most. He receives a trophy along with $2,000.
Sportsmanship Award – The winner is chosen by the fellow mushers, and receives a plaque and a check for $1,049.
ExxonMobil Mushers Choice Award – Chosen as the most inspirational musher to compete that year, and is awarded a limited edition Iditarod Gold Coin (worth $3,900) on a gold chain.
Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award – Awarded to the musher who has shown the best dog care while competing, and is in the form of a lead crystal cup on an illuminated wooden base.
City of Nome Lolly Medley Golden Harness Award – The winner, the best lead dog, is chosen by fellow mushers, and receives an embroidered gold-colored harness.
Wells Fargo Winner’s Purse Award – Given to the first musher to cross the finish line.
Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Official Truck Award – Presented to the winner of the race, in the form of a new Chrysler 4×4 pickup truck.
Wells Fargo’s Red Lantern Award – Given to the last musher to cross the finish line. He receives a trophy in the shape of a red lantern.
Northern Air Cargo Four-Wheeler Drawing – A new 4-wheeler is gifted to the musher who draws the right key from a pile of keys, and is able to start the vehicle.
List of Winners
|1975||Emmitt Peters||Nugget and Digger|
|1976||Gerald Riley||Puppy and Sugar|
|1977||Rick Swenson||Andy and Old Buddy|
|1978||Dick Mackey||Skipper and Shrew|
|1979||Rick Swenson||Quiz and Bowl|
|1980||Joe May||Wilbur and Cora Gray|
|1981||Rick Swenson||Andy and Slick|
|1983||Rick Mackey||Preacher and Jody|
|1984||Dean Osmar||Red and Bullet|
|1985||Libby Riddles||Axle and Dugan|
|1986||Susan Butcher||Granite and Mattie|
|1987||Susan Butcher||Granite and Mattie|
|1988||Susan Butcher||Granite and Tolstoi|
|1989||Joe Runyan||Rambo and Ferlin|
|1990||Susan Butcher||Sluggo and Lightning|
|1992||Martin Buser||Tyrone and D2|
|1993||Jeff King||Herbie and Kitty|
|1994||Martin Buser||D2 and Dave|
|1995||Doug Swingley||Vic and Elmer|
|1996||Jeff King||Jake and Booster|
|1997||Martin Buser||Blondie and Fearless|
|1998||Jeff King||Red and Jenna|
|1999||Doug Swingley||Stormy, Cola, and Elmer|
|2000||Doug Swingley||Stormy and Cola|
|2001||Doug Swingley||Stormy and Peppy|
|2005||Robert Sørlie||Sox and Blue|
|2006||Jeff King||Salem and Bronte|
|2007||Lance Mackey||Larry and Lippy|
|2008||Lance Mackey||Larry and Hobo|
|2009||Lance Mackey||Larry and Maple|
|2011||John Baker||Velvet and Snickers|
|2012||Dallas Seavey||Guinness and Diesel|
|2013||Mitch Seavey||Tanner and Taurus|
|2014||Dallas Seavey||Beetle and Reef|
► The restart location of the race can be changed depending on the weather conditions.
► Every race features an auction, where the highest bidder wins the opportunity to ride on any one of the dog sleds for the first 11 miles of the race.
► The dog sleds being used today are based on the design of the sleds used by the Inupiaq and Yup’ik tribes of the Bering Strait.
► The northern route has 26 checkpoints, and the southern route has 27.
► A fire siren is sounded when a musher reaches the 2-mile point from the finishing line, announcing the arrival of the musher.
► Doug Swingley was the first non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod.
► Rick Swenson is the only person to win the race 5 times, and also the only person to win in three separate decades.
► Originally, the time taken to finish the race was 20 days. Now, it takes around 10 days.
► Sled dogs burn approximately 12,000 calories a day, and can run at speeds of 12 mph to 20 mph.
► The race relies heavily on volunteerism.
► The Hollywood movie “Balto” was based on the 1925 great serum run to Nome and the musher and his lead dog (Balto), who ran the last stretch and delivered the serum.
► The closest finish was in 1978 when Dick Mackey’s lead dog crossed the finish line merely one second before Rick Swenson’s dog.
► Dallas Seavey is the youngest musher to participate in the Iditarod. He was 18 years old when he participated in 2005.