The Rush of the Iditarod

Famous dog sled race in Alaska takes rural to the extreme.
Kim Bertrand
March/April 2008
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A community of sled dogs greets each musher.
Kim Bertrand

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The year is 1992. A 10-year-old Laura Daugereau sits on the floor playing with her new puppy. She laughs while dressing the little creature in doll clothes and booties before taking him outside to play. He tries desperately to step out of his shoes. “Settle down, Buster,” Laura giggles. The puppy obeys, as if he knows this is the start of the little girl’s dream, a dream shared by dog lovers across North America.

The year is 2008. Laura, now raising Huskies on a Montana ranch, kneels on the Alaskan snow re-packing her sled one last time. She walks up the 80 feet of gangline to check that all 16 dogs are hooked up properly, and that their booties are on. Her handlers try to hold the team still, but they’re lunging and screaming to do what they love more than life itself – run. She hurries back, jumps on the sled’s runners, and the dogs burst forth with so much energy her grip is almost torn from the sled. Heading out of Anchorage, the team settles into a powerful pace. The people are fewer, the noise quiets, and she hears only sled runners swooshing on the snow. Finally, she and her team are alone, running their first Iditarod with only 1,049 miles to go.

The Iditarod, conceived in 1973 to keep the sport of mushing alive, pays tribute to the memory of the few brave men and loyal dogs who carried life-saving diphtheria treatment to the tiny town of Nome in 1925. Then, as in 1973, vocal critics claimed the feat was impossible, but the detractors went unheeded.

Today, thousands of spectators gather at the race’s start to follow more than 70 mushers and their nearly 1,000 dogs down the trail. Millions of others around the world pore over news reports of the race.

The Iditarod is an extremely rural race, which mushers take on with a spirit of independence and self-reliance. They cannot accept help from anyone along the trail. They drive, feed, water and care for their dogs alone. Mental and physical toughness and the ability to survive treacherous landscapes in bitter weather is a must, not just to win the race, but to survive it.

The Iditarod trail offers stunning views of the Alaskan landscape while the sleds run in some of the most dangerous conditions on Earth. Mushers tell stories of hair-raising experiences heading up to Rainy Pass and down the Happy River Steps (or shall we say “cliffs”) leading to the daunting Dalzell Gorge.

Exaggeration is not required; reality is enough to shock the average audience.

Slick glare ice, deep snow drifts, snowless tundra and hurricane-force winds are among the path’s many perils. Angry moose, sleep deprivation and wind chills as low as minus 100 degrees … just another day at the office for those who race.

Each year brings different weather and trail conditions, new stories, new dangers, new heroes, new heartbreaks, and lives forever changed. On March 1, the adventure continues – for Laura and the other mushers, for the dogs and for the world-wide community watching and living out dreams through these amazing teams. In a mere nine days, the winner will appear under the burled arch in Nome … and the planning begins for next year.

learn more about the Iditarod & participants

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