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Annual Iditarod Is Only For Brave At Heart

Country MoonIt’s a good thing that each of us is unique and has our own likes and dislikes. I admire individuality and respect what each person’s passion is, even if it is totally out of my realm. Even though I am a winter person and like the snow, I never could be a musher with a sled dog team although I have the utmost respect for anyone who does.

The annual Alaskan Iditarod is just around the corner, due to kick off this year on March 7. The 1,049-mile dog sled race literally pits man and animal against nature’s most extreme conditions. On a normal day, competitors can encounter jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, desolate tundra, miles of windswept coast, and winds that can cause complete loss of visibility in wind chills of up to minus 100 degrees.

Dog sledding from the rider's perspective | iStockphoto.com/lorentrager 

Dog sledding from the rider's perspective | iStockphoto.com/lorentrager 

So, what draws a person to endure these conditions for 15 or more days? It has to be nothing but the pure excitement of the challenge that beckons more than 50 mushers each year to put their lives up against the elements just to win the race. It’s certainly not for everyone and not just everyone may enter.

Only experienced mushers who qualify by taking part in three smaller races may compete. It also takes a little dough to get your team entered. Mushers spend a year in training and raising money for the three weeks on the trail. The combined cost of the entry fee, dog maintenance and transportation is usually between $20,000 to $30,000, with the Top 10 teams spending somewhere between $80,000 to $100,000 per year. This is all for a chance to take the prize money of roughly $50,000. Guess with these figures there are no financial advisers competing! However, mushers do come from all walks of life including fishermen, lawyers, doctors, artists, natives and many more.

The Iditarod Trail goes from Anchorage in southern Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. The trail is now a National Historic Trail, but was originally a supply route where mail and supplies went in and gold came out, all via dog sled. The Iditarod itself was organized in 1973 to test the best sled dog teams and to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out due to snowmobiles.

Each musher uses different tactics and strategies. Some choose to run at night and others by day. Some have developed special diets for their dogs. This individual endurance plays a key role in how each team fairs in the elements although there are certain rules that all mushers must abide by. First, they all start off with a team of 16 dogs, six of which must be on the towline at the finish line. Some equipment is mandatory for each team. Every musher must have an Arctic parka, heavy sleeping bag, axe, snowshoes, musher food, dog food and boots for each dog’s feet to protect against the cutting ice and hard-packed snow. In any given race, a musher can go through more than 1,000 pair of dog boots.

Mushers follow two routes: the northern route, which is run on even numbered years, and the southern route, which is followed on odd numbered years. Both of these routes run through urban centers and small villages drawing press all along the trail.

There are 26 checkpoints along the route where mushers sign in. Some camp on the trail and have drop bags of supplies flown ahead to each checkpoint. Rules state that they all must take one 24-hour layover, one eight-hour layover at any checkpoint on the Yukon River, and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain, which is near the finish of the race.

The Iditarod always begins the first Saturday in March at the first checkpoint  on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage. A five-block section is barricaded off and snow is shipped in by truck and stockpiled the night before to cover the route. Amazing that snow sometimes has to be brought in; this is Alaska we are talking about!

This is the ceremonial start of the race where the first musher leaves at 10 a.m. and each subsequent one leaves every two minutes thereafter. The order is determined by a drawing held two days before. During this ceremonial start mushers can relax and enjoy the spectators. The official start is the next day at 2 p.m. at the third checkpoint.

The first 100 miles is known as “moose alley” because, with the snow making it difficult for moose to move and forage for food, they often use the trails. This causes a real hazard for the sled teams.

The lead dogs for this dogsled are ready to go! | iStockphoto.com/Jonwick 

The lead dogs for this dogsled are ready to go! | iStockphoto.com/Jonwick

Speaking of hazards, through this whole event the dogs’ best interests and health are always the foremost concerns. After all, what would this race be without the dogs? All dogs are thoroughly examined by a vet before the race and are identified and tracked by microchip implants and collar tags. Volunteer vets check the dogs along the trails and a vet diary must be kept and signed at each checkpoint. Any time a dog is exhausted or injured it may be carried in the sled’s basket to the next drop site where it is transported to a vet hospital.

So, after writing this article, am I ready to go and assemble a dog team for next year? No way. Now, grabbing my camera some year and getting some shots along a few miles of the race may not be so bad. As for being a musher, my hat’s off to them. They are made of stronger grit than I.