Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race


Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, usually just called the "Iditarod", is an annual sled dog race in Alaska, where mushers and teams of typically 16 dogs cover 1,161 miles (1868 km) in eight to fifteen days from Willow to Nome. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams, evolving into the highly competitive race it is today. The current fastest winning time record was set in 2002 by Martin Buser with a time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds.cite web |url = http://www.iditarod.com/learn/awards.html |title = Awards |accessmonthday = March 25 |accessyear = 2007 |author = Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc]

Frequently teams race through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, and sub-zero weather and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach −100 °F (−75 °C). The trail runs through the U.S. state of Alaska. A ceremonial start occurs in the city of Anchorage and is followed by the official restart in Willow, a city in the south central region of the state. The restart was originally in Wasilla, but due to too little snow, the restart was permanently moved to Willow in 2008.cite web |url = http://dwb.adn.com/news/alaska/matsu/story/8667081p-8559265c.html |title = Iditarod restart |accessmonthday = Sept 24 |accessyear = 2008 |author = Anchorage daily news] The trail proceeds from Willow up the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range into the sparsely populated interior, and then along the shore of the Bering Sea, finally reaching Nome in western Alaska. The teams cross a harsh landscape under the canopy of the Northern Lights, through tundra and spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers. While the start in Anchorage is in the middle of a large urban center, most of the route passes through widely separated towns and villages, and small Athabaskan and Inupiaq settlements. The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state, and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing.

The race is the most popular sporting event in Alaska, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are local celebrities; this popularity is credited with the resurgence of recreational mushing in the state since the 1970s. While the yearly field of more than fifty mushers and about a thousand dogs is still largely Alaskan, competitors from fourteen countries have completed the event including the Swiss Martin Buser, who became the first international winner in 1992.

The Iditarod received more attention outside of the state after the 1985 victory of Libby Riddles, a long shot who became the first woman to win the race. Susan Butcher became the second woman to win the race, and went on to dominate for half a decade. Print and television journalists and crowds of spectators attend the start at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and D Streets in Anchorage, and in smaller numbers at the checkpoints along the trail.

History

Portions of the Iditarod Trail were used by the Native American Inupiaq and Athabaskan peoples hundreds of years before the arrival of Russian fur traders in the 1800s, but the trail reached its peak between the late 1880s and the mid 1920s as miners arrived to dig coal and later gold, especially after the Alaska gold rushes at Nome in 1898, and at the "Inland Empire" along the Kuskokwim Mountains between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, in 1908.

The primary communication and transportation link to the rest of the world during the summer was the steamship; but between October and June the northern ports like Nome became icebound, and dog sleds delivered mail, firewood, mining equipment, gold ore, food, furs, priests, and other needed supplies between the trading posts and settlements across the Interior and along the western coast. Roadhouses where travelers could spend the night sprang up every 14 to 30 miles (23 to 48 km) until the end of the 1920s, when the mail carriers were replaced by bush pilots flying small aircraft and the roadhouses vanished. Dog sledding persisted in the rural parts of Alaska, but was almost driven into extinction by the spread of snowmobiles in the 1960s.

During its heyday, mushing was also a popular sport during the winter, when mining towns shut down. The first major competition was the tremendously popular 1908 All-Alaska Sweepstakes (AAS), which was started by Allan "Scotty" Alexander Allan, and ran 408 miles (657 km) from Nome to Candle and back. The event introduced the first Siberian huskies to Alaska in 1910, where they quickly became the favored racing dog, replacing the Alaskan malamute and mongrels bred from imported huskies and other large breeds, like setters and pointers. In 1914, the Norwegian immigrant Leonhard Seppala first appeared, and went on to win the race in 1915, 1916, and 1917, before the race was discontinued in 1918 during World War I.

The most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the "Great Race of Mercy." A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, especially the Inuit children who had no immunity to the "white man's disease," and the nearest quantity of antitoxin was in Anchorage. Since the two available planes were both dismantled and had never been flown in the winter, Governor Scott Bone approved a safer route. The 20-pound (9 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles (480 km) from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where it was passed just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over convert|100|mi|km.

The Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925, where it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions. However, most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo to be the true heroes of the run. Together they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum farther than any other team.

The Iditarod was the brainchild of Dorothy G. Page (the "Mother of the Iditarod"), who wanted to sponsor a sled dog race to honor mushers. With the support of Joe Redington, Sr. (the "Father of the Iditarod"), the first race (then known as the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in honor of Leonhard Seppala) was held in 1967 and covered 25 miles (40 km) near Anchorage. The purse of USD $25,000 attracted a field of 58 racers, and the winner was Isaac Okleasik. The next race, in 1968, was canceled for lack of snow, and the small $1,000 purse in 1969 only drew 12 mushers.

Redington was the impetus behind extending the race more than convert|1000|mi|km along the historic route to Nome, and a major fundraising campaign which raised a purse of $51,000. The first true Iditarod was held in 1973, and attracted a field of 34 mushers, 22 of whom completed the race. The event was a success; even though the purse dropped in the 1974 race, the popularity caused the field of mushers to rise to 44, and corporate sponsorship in 1975 put the race on secure financial footing. Despite the loss of sponsors during a dog abuse scandal in 1976, the Iditarod caused a resurgence of recreational mushing in the 1970s, and has continued to grow until it is now the largest sporting event in the state. While the race was originally patterned after the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the Iditarod Trail Committee promotes it as a commemoration of the serum delivery.

The race's namesake is the Iditarod Trail, which was designated as one of the first four National Historic Trails in 1978. The trail in turn is named for the town of Iditarod, which was an Athabaskan village before becoming the center of the Inland Empire's Iditarod Mining District in 1910, and then turning into a ghost town at the end of the local gold rush. The name "Iditarod" may be derived from the Athabaskan "haiditarod", meaning "far distant place".

The main route of the Iditarod trail extends 938 miles (1,500 km) from Seward in the south to Nome in the northwest, and was first surveyed by Walter Goodwin in 1908, and then cleared and marked by the Alaska Road Commission in 1910 and 1911. The entire network of branching paths covers a total of 2,450 miles (3,945 km). Except for the start in Anchorage, the modern race follows parts of the historic trail.

Route

This route is a grueling one. While always longer than 1,000 miles (1,609 km), the trail is actually composed of a northern route, which is run on even-numbered years, and a southern route, which is run on odd-numbered years. Both follow the same trail for 444 miles (715 km), from Anchorage to Ophir, where they diverge and then rejoin at Kaltag, 441 miles (710 km) from Nome. The race used the northern route until 1977, when the southern route was added to distribute the impact of the event on the small villages in the area, none of which have more than a few hundred inhabitants. Passing through the historic town of Iditarod was a secondary benefit.

Aside from the addition of the southern route, the route has remained relatively constant. The largest changes were the addition of the restart location in 1975, and the shift from Ptarmigan to Rainy Pass in 1976. Checkpoints along the route are also occasionally added or dropped, and the ceremonial start of the route and the restart point are commonly adjusted due to weather.

As a result the exact measured distance of the race varies, but according to the official website the northern route is 1,112 miles (1,790 km) long, and the southern route is 1,131 miles (1820 km) long (ITC, "Southern" & "Northern"). The length of the race is also frequently rounded to either 1,050, 1,100, or 1,150 miles (1690, 1770 or 1850 km), but is officially set at 1,049 miles (1688 km), which honors Alaska's status as the 49th state.

Checkpoints

There are currently 25 checkpoints on the northern route and 26 on the southern route where mushers must sign in. Some mushers prefer to camp on the trail and immediately press on, but others stay and rest. Mushers purchase supplies and equipment in Anchorage, which are flown ahead to each checkpoint by the Iditarod Air Force. The gear includes food, extra booties for the dogs, headlamps for night travel, batteries (for the lamps, music, or radios), tools and sled parts for repairs, and even lightweight sleds for the final dash to Nome. There are three mandatory rests that each team must take during the Iditarod: one 24-hour layover, to be taken at any checkpoint; one eight-hour layover, taken at any checkpoint on the Yukon River; and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Other than these three mandatory stops, the mushers may be racing their dogs.

In 1985, the race was suspended for the first time for safety reasons when weather prevented the Iditarod Air Force from delivering supplies to Rohn and Nikolai, the first two checkpoints in the Alaska Interior. Fifty-eight mushers and 508 dogs congregated at the small lodge in Rainy Pass for three days, while emergency shipments of food were flown in from Anchorage. Weather also halted the race later at McGrath, and the two stops added almost a week to the winning time.

Ceremonial start

From Rainy Pass, the route continues up the mountain, past the tree line to the divide of the Alaska Range, and then passes down into the Alaska Interior. The elevation of the pass is 3,200 feet (975 m), and some nearby peaks exceed 5,000 feet (1,500 m). The valley up the mountains is exposed to blizzards. In 1974, there were several cases of frostbite when the temperature dropped to −50 °F (−45 °C), and the 50-mile-per-hour (80-kilometer-per-hour) winds caused the wind chill to drop to −130 °F (−90 °C). The wind also erases the trail and markers, making the path hard to follow. In 1976, retired colonel Norman Vaughan, who drove a dog team in Richard E. Byrd's 1928 expedition to the South Pole and competed in the only Olympic sled dog race, became lost for five days after leaving Rainy Pass, and nearly died.

The trail down Dalzell Gorge from the divide is regarded as the worst stretch of the trail. Steep and twisting, it drops 1,000 feet (300 m) in elevation in just five miles (8 km), and there is little traction so the teams are hard to control. Mushers have to ride the brake most of the way down, and use a snow hook for traction. In 1988, rookie Peryll Kyzer fell through an ice bridge into a creek, and spent the night wet. The route then follows Tatina River, which is also hazardous: in 1986 Butcher's lead dogs fell through the ice, but landed on a second layer of ice instead of falling into the river. In 1997, Ramey Smyth lost the end of his pinkie when it hit an overhanging branch while negotiating the gorge. [ [http://www.adn.com/iditarod/news/story/6236819p-6111967c.html adn.com | Are dogs abused? Depends who you ask ] ]

Rohn is the next checkpoint, and is located in a spruce forest with no wind and a poor airstrip. The isolation, and its location immediately after the rigors of Rainy Pass, and before the convert|75|mi|km|sing=on haul to the next checkpoint, makes it a popular place for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour stop. From Rohn, the trail follows the south fork of the Kuskokwim River, where freezing water running over a layer of ice (overflow) is a hazard. In 1975, Vaughan was hospitalized for frostbite after running through an overflow. In 1973, Terry Miller and his team were almost drawn into a hole in the river by the powerful current in an overflow, but were rescued by Tom Mercer who came back to save them.

About 45 miles (70 km) from Rohn, the path leaves the river and passes into the Farewell Burn. In 1976, a wildfire turned 360,000 acres (1,500 km) of spruce into blackened badland of burnt timber. Fallen trees, and falling through clumps of sedge or grass which balloon out into a canopy two feet (600 mm) above the ground, supporting a deceptively thin crust of snow, are common dangers. The Burn forces teams to move very slowly, and can cause paw injuries.

Nikolai, an Athapaskan settlement on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, is the first Native American village used as a checkpoint, and the arrival of the sled teams is one of the largest social events of the year. The route then follows the south fork of the Kuskokwim to the former mining town of McGrath. According to the 2000 census, it has a population of 401, making it the largest checkpoint in the Interior. McGrath is also notable for being the first site in Alaska to receive mail by aircraft (in 1924), heralding the end of the sled dog era. It still has a good airfield, so journalists are common.

The next checkpoint is the ghost town of Takotna, which was a commercial hub during the gold rush. Ophir, named for the reputed source of King Solomon's gold by religious prospectors, is the next checkpoint. By this stage in the race, the front-runners are several days ahead of those in the back of the pack.

Divided path

Both trails meet again in Kaltag, which for hundreds of years has been a gateway between the Athapaskan villages in the Interior, and the Inuit settlements on the coast of the Bering Sea. The "Kaltag Portage" runs through a 1,000-foot (300 m) pass down to the Inuit town of Unalakleet, on the shore of the Bering Sea.

Last dash

In the early years of the Iditarod, the last stretch along the shores of the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea to Nome was a slow, easy trip. Now that the race is more competitive, the last stretch has become one long dash to the finish.

According to the 2000 census, the village of Unalakleet has a population of 747, making it the largest Native American town along the Iditarod. The majority of the residents are Inupiat, the Inuit people of the Bering Strait region. The town's name means the "place where the east wind blows", and the buildings are commonly buried under snowdrifts. Racers are met by church bells or sirens, and mobbed by crowds.

From Unalakleet, the route passes through the hills to the Inupiat village of Shaktoolik, which is also buried in snow, after the northeast wind brings ground blizzards. The route then passes across the frozen Norton Bay, where the markers are young spruce trees that were dropped into holes in the ice, where they froze, to Koyuk. After the Bay, the route swings west along the south shore of Seward Peninsula though the tiny villages of Elim, Golovin and White Mountain.

All teams must rest their dogs for at least eight hours at White Mountain, before the final sprint. From White Mountain to Safety is 77 miles (124 km), and from Safety to Nome is just 22 miles (35 km). The last leg is crucial because the lead teams are often within a few hours of each other at this point. As of|1991, the race has been decided by less than an hour seven different times, less than five minutes three times, and in the closest race the winner and the runner-up were only one second apart.

The official finish line is the Red "Fox" Olson Trail Monument, more commonly known as the "burled arch", in Nome. The original burled arch lasted from 1975, until it was destroyed by dry rot and years of inclement weather in 2001. The new arch is a spruce log with two distinct burls, similar but not identical to the old arch. While the old arch spelled out "End of the Iditarod Dog Race", the new arch has an additional word: "End of the Iditarod "Sled" Dog Race".

A "Widow's Lamp" (also known as the "Red Lantern") is lit and remains hanging on the arch until the last competitor crosses the finish line. The tradition is based on the kerosene lamp lit and hung outside a roadhouse, when a musher carrying goods or mail was en route.

On the way to the arch, each musher passes down Front Street, and down the fenced-off convert|50|yd|m|sing=on end stretch. The city's fire siren is sounded as each musher hits the 2-mile mark before the finish line. While the winner of the first race in 1973 completed the competition in just over 20 days, preparation of the trail in advance of the dog sled teams and improvements in dog training have dropped the winning time to under 10 days in every race since 1996.

An awards banquet is held the Sunday after the winner's arrival. Brass belt buckles and special patches are given to everyone who completes the race.

Mushers

More than 50 mushers enter each year. Most are from rural South Central Alaska, the Interior, and the "Bush"; few are urban, and only a small percentage are from the Lower 48, Canada, or overseas. Some are professionals who make their living by selling dogs, running sled dog tours, giving mushing instruction, and speaking about their Iditarod experiences. Others make money from Iditarod-related advertising contracts or book deals. Some are amateurs who make their living hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening, or with seasonal jobs, though lawyers, surgeons, airline pilots, veterinarians, biologists, and CEOs have competed. Per [http://www.iditarod.com/pdfs/2007/2007Rules-Final.pdf rules#1 and #2] , only experienced mushers are allowed to compete in the Iditarod. Mushers are required to participate in three smaller races in order to qualify for the Iditarod. However, they are allowed to lease dogs to participate in the Iditarod and are not required to take written exams to determine their knowledge of mushing, the dogs they race or canine first aid. If a musher has been convicted of a charge of animal neglect, or if the Iditarod Trail Committee determines the musher is unfit, they are not allowed to compete. The Iditarod Trail Committee once disqualified musher Jerry Riley for alleged dog abuse and Rick Swenson after one of his dogs expired after running through overflow. The Iditarod later reinstated both men and allowed them to race. Rick Swenson is now on the Iditarod's board of directors. Rookie mushers must pre-qualify by finishing an assortment of qualifying races first. As of|2006, the combined cost of the entry fee, dog maintenance, and transportation was estimated by one musher at between USD $20,000 to $30,000. [Snow Bound Kennels, 2006] But that figure varies depending upon how many dogs a musher has, what the musher feeds the dogs and how much is spent on housing and handlers. Expenses faced by modern teams include lightweight gear including thousands of booties and quick-change runners, special high-energy dog foods, veterinary care, and breeding costs. According to Athabaskan musher Ken Chase, "the big expenses [for rural Alaskans] are the freight and having to buy dog food". (Hutchinson) Most modern teams cost $10,000 to $40,000, and the top 10 spend between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. The top finisher won at least $69,000, the remaining top thirty finishers won an average of $26,500 each. [CNN, 2006] Mushers make money from their sponsorships, speaking fees, advertising contracts and book deals.

Dogs

See also

*2005 Iditarod
*2006 Iditarod
*2007 Iditarod
*2008 Iditarod
*"Balto" movie
*American Dog Derby
*Kevin of the North

References

* Kathleen A. Cordes (1999). "America's National Historic Trails". ISBN 0-8061-3103-9.
* Bill Sherwonit and Jeff Schultz. (1991) "Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome". ISBN 0-88240-411-3.
* Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc (March 5, 2005). [http://www.iditarod.com/1-5.html 2005 Iditarod Mushers] . Retrieved March 5, 2005.
** Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc. [http://www.iditarod.com/learn/awards.html Champions] . Retrieved March 25, 2007.
** [http://www.iditarod.com/2-3.html Northern route] . Retrieved March 5, 2005.
** [http://www.iditarod.com/2-3.html Southern route] . Retrieved March 5, 2005.
* CNN (2006). "Incredible" dog leads Iditarod victor". http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/03/15/iditarod.ap/index.html. Retrieved March 15, 2006. Found broken March 25, 2007.
* Snow Bound Kennels (2006). "Expenses for the Iditarod". [http://www.snowboundkennels.com/Cost.html] . Retrieved March 15, 2006.

External links

* [http://www.iditarod.com/ The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race] Official site, with webcams and data
* [http://www.iditarodairforce.com/ Iditarod Air Force]
* [http://sleddoggin.com/ Iditarod Race Coverage]
* [http://www.isdvma.org International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association]
* [http://www.mushwithpride.org Mush with P.R.I.D.E]
* [http://race.ionearth.com/iditarod/ Live GPS Tracking of Race]

Iditarod Coverage & News

* [http://www.iditablog.com/ Blogging the Iditarod Trail]
* [http://www.dogsled.com Mushing News, Iditarod Coverage, and More!] Mushing Coverage all year round.
* [http://www.adn.com/iditarod/ Anchorage Daily News Iditarod section] .
* [http://www.ktuu.com/ KTUU-tv Channel 2 in Anchorage] : Live coverage of ceremonial and actual race starts.
* [http://www.workingdogweb.com/Iditarod.htm Working Dog Iditarod] section.
* [http://www.furrondy.net/ Rondy Live Online] coverage of ceremonial start of the Iditarod Race in Anchorage by the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.

Opposition to the Iditarod

* [http://www.helpsleddogs.org/ Sled Dog Action Coalition]


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