Iditarod Dog Sled Race
A Race of Champions!

The Iditarod dog sled race, started in 1973, is one of those great Alaskan events that bring the crowds. It occurs immediately at the end of the Fur Rendezvous, another of Alaska's unique attractions.

Though there are other dog sled races in Alaska, this is one of the most grueling of all. The trail is over 1,100 miles long and takes the dog sled teams and their "mushers" anywhere from a little over a week, to over three weeks to complete. This differences in time is mainly due to different weather conditions in different years. Some years it has been very rough with extremely bad storms.

Photo of Dog Team in Iditarod Race
Two Huskies Lead their Iditarod Race Team

Choosing the beginning of March for the race is wise. It's fairly certain there will still be plenty of snow from the colder months of January and February, and the weather is possibly a bit milder.

The original Iditarod Trail itself started at the north end of the railroad tracks coming out of Seward. It went through Crow Pass behind Girdwood and came down Eagle River Valley, bypassing Anchorage - which did not exist until 1915.

It was actually a well-used trail to take supplies to the interior of Alaska by sled dog teams. Today, there is a ceremonial start to the race in downtown Anchorage. Then the official start of the race happens the following day in Willow, which is about 28 miles north of Wasilla, on the Parks Highway. The restart of the race was originally in Wasilla until the lack of snow forced it to be moved further north.

An Iditarod Dog Sled Race Musher and Team, Starting in Wasilla

The dog sled teams that made history, taking the life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925, actually started in the village of Nenana. The serum was picked up from that railroad station on the Tanana River.

The Iditarod dog sled race was set up to commemorate this heroic event as well as the part that sled dogs have played in Alaska's early history. For these reasons, and being an extremely tough race, it has received a lot of attention and notoriety.

The Iditarod dog sled race produces heroes each and every year. Everyone that enters the race and completes it is at least a minor hero. It takes a pretty tough person just to endure the hardships of the trail and weather!

Imagine living outdoors for 10 to 20 days in temperatures that can go to -50° F (-45.56 C) or colder. And having winds or snow storms that blind you, treacherous mountain trails and about 14 hours or more of darkness each day. The good part is, the mushers have the company of their team of faithful, hardy dogs.

Though I have not run a sled dog race myself, I have been in -40° F (C) weather with a wind chill factor that made it feel like -65° F (-53.9 C) when living in the Copper River Valley. Sleet blowing sideways felt like cold knives going through me. Usually there isn't any precipitation at those cold temperatures, but I have seen it happen.

So anyone that completes this race deserves a medal! They not only endure the toughest of weather conditions, they also have to cross stretches of frozen rivers, such as the Yukon and part of a frozen bay. These stretches of ice can be rather dangerous.

Photo Dog Sled Team Resting During Race

People come from around the world to enter the Iditarod dog sled race each year, but only a few non-Alaskans have won it. I would assume that's because the Alaskans know EXACTLY what they're getting into. And perhaps they have more chance to practice.

There are many participants and many winners in each race. So I'll just mention a few that have really made history. The following mushers have all won the Iditarod more than once: Rick Swenson, Susan Butcher, Jeff King, Martin Buser, Doug Swingley (from Montana), Robert Sorlie (from Norway) and Lance Mackey. Six of them are Alaskans.

Alaskan's love winter events, so many towns have been added to the Iditarod race trail over the years. Part of the route is changed each year to allow different towns to participate. There are hundreds of volunteers that watch out for the mushers and help everything go smoothly.

After the dog sled teams leave Wasilla, their checkpoints are as follows: Willow, Yentna, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, Rohn, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, Ophir. The next segments change each year. One year the race continues on the northern route through Cripple, Ruby, Galena, Nulato and Kaltag. The next year it continues on the southern route through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Eagle Island. Then both routes continue on to the western coast of Alaska to Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety and ending at Nome. The trail segments between checkpoints are anywhere from 20 miles to over 100 miles!

Photo Courtesy of Frank Kovalchek

And when the mushers reach their final destination in Nome, they are greeted with welcoming crowds and a fire siren. It doesn't matter whether it is day or night when they arrive! That is an excellent demonstration of the true Alaskan spirit!

People who are not in the race also have a chance to participate in this exciting event. One way is by bidding on the opportunity for a ride in one of the mushers' sleds for the ceremonial part, from Anchorage to Eagle River. This helps fund the prize money for the race. And it has made it well worthwhile for many people to enter the race. There are now well over 60 participants in the Iditarod race each year.

So if you are looking for an exciting winter vacation, come for several weeks of fun and celebration, starting with the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage and follow the amazing feats of the dog sled mushers and their teams in the world-famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

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