The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Sled Dogs RacingSled Dogs Racing

In order to understand how these dogs worked, we shall begin with the true story of the world's most famous dog sled competition, the Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race.

The background of this race began on March 30, 1867 when America purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.USA. Gold was discovered some 20 years later. Then dog sledding then became even more significant for hauling not only food and freight but also gold mining equipment. As the demand for gold increased, so did the price of dogs! Today this dog sledding race is regarded as Alaska's sport!

History of the Iditarod Trail

Wolf (USA)Wolf (USA)

Today the main land route through the area we now know as Alaska is called the Iditarod Trail. It was originally developed by the Mahlamut Eskimos and the Athabascan Indians when Alaska was still part of Russia. It connected the more distant areas of the country when they became ice bound. When the Euro-Americans arrived in the 1800s this connection included exploration, trapping, hauling supplies and later, mail delivery. Consequently, dog powered sleds and toboggans pulled by sled dogs originally developed from wolves like the one pictured, travelled together in dog-trains averaging 25 - 50 miles a day[1].

By 1911, the Iditarod Trail covered more than 2,200 miles. It began in the ice-free coastal port of Seward and ended in Nome, a town which developed during the gold rush. This trail became the winter network that connected mining settlements that had popped up during the gold rush. During the summer months, the swamps and lowland tundra caused by the melted snow made it virtually impassable. Then the steamship became the primary communication and transport link to the rest of the world.

The Great Race of Mercy to Nome

In January 1925, in the middle of the Arctic winter, with no fore-warning, there was an outbreak of the highly contagious fatal disease of diphtheria. The first victims were two young Eskimo children. Dr Curtis Welsh, Nome's only physician at that time only had a few doses of serum which was already 5 years old! Flying the serum by plane at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit when flying was still in its infancy was not an option. Consequently, the Mayor and the City Council settled on a slower solution. The serum would be transported by train to the rail-road's end, Nenana, and the onwards to Nome by dog teams.

Seppala Sled Dog TeamSeppala Sled Dog Team

Alaska's Governor Scott Bone organised a relay of dog teams and their owner/drivers called Mushers. The plan was that these people and their dogs would travel to designated mail-shelter cabins, and wait their turn to transport the serum. This would be packaged in a cylindrical container wrapped in an insulating material. On January 26 the 20-pound package began its 298-mile train journey. Meanwhile, back at Nome, their Board of Health requested the services of Leonhard Seppala and his legendary team of Siberian Huskies. About halfway between Nenana and Nulato, Seppala chose 20 dogs to begin this 640-mile journey. Leading the team was Seppala's pride and joy, a 12-year-old dog named 'Togo'.

Statue of 'Balto' in Central Park New York CityStatue of 'Balto' in Central Park New York City

Seppala and his team delivered the package safely to the first checkpoint where they were met by the second team. In total of 20 Mushers and their teams totalling more than 100 dogs participated in the remainder of this 'Great Race of Mercy'. They would travel 674 miles through the world's roughest and most desolate landscapes in the depths of winter in less than five and a half days. The last of these was a 13-dog team which would deliver the serum to Nome. This team was led by an experienced sled dog named 'Balto'.

This last leg was particularly dangerous because of the blizzard conditions contained winds so strong that, at one stage, they hurled the Musher, the sled and the dogs right off the trail. The dogs then begun to freeze. However, their experienced Musher, a Norwegian named Gunnar Kaasen methodically blanketed each dog. His experience of doing this in such adverse conditions enabled their leading dog 'Balto' to instinctively lead the team, blinded by the darkness of the storm, home to Nome[1a].

Admirably, the serum arrived safely was used judiciously. Together with a second batch there were no further deaths in Nome from diphtheria during the 1920s epidemic.

A National Sport is Born

Forty years later, in the 1960s a Centennial Committee was formed to organise an event to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Alaska's purchase from Russia. The Chairperson, Dorothy Page decided that it would be appropriate to stage 'a spectacular dog race as a tribute to the Mushers and their contribution in the development of Alaska'. The route would be roughly 1,100 miles (1,770 km) along the Iditerod Trial. The first race, known as 'the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race' was in honour of first Musher in the 'Great Race to Mercy. Held in 1967, the first purse of US$25,000 attracted a field of 58 racers. Today, Dog Mushing is regarded as 'Alaska's National Sport', highlighted by the marathon race, the 'Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race' [1b].

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Potential Sled dog pups playingPotential Sled dog pups playing

Today the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an Annual long-distance race for between 12 and 14 dogs, which cover approximately 1,000 miles (1,510 km) in 8 - 15 days in sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. The dogs that take part in this Race are well-conditioned athletes.The dogs that have the instinct to run are chosen to breed with. From a very early age the pups are encouraged to run. For example the pups pictured are playing by running around a wheel. Intensive training begins in the late summer so by March, the fully matured dogs are ready to compete.

The Iditerod Trail Sled Dog Race begins on the first Saturday in March. Shortly before the race, a ribbon-cutting ceremony is held under the flags representing the home countries and states of all competitors in the race. Leading the Race is an honorary Musher, selected for his/her contribution to the Sport of Dog Sledding. The Race begins at 10:00 AM. The first competitor leaves at 10:02 AM and the rest follow, separated by two-minute intervals.The Mushers then continue through several miles of city streets and city trails before reaching the foothills east of Anchorage.

Iditarod Race StartIditarod Race Start

Each team is composed of twelve to sixteen dogs. No more may be added during the race. At least five dogs must be in harness at all times, including when crossing the finishing line in Nome. Mushers must keep a veterinary diary which must be signed by a veterinarian at each checkpoint. There the dogs are examined first, then they are fed and bedded down. Iditarod drivers are prohibited from using drugs of any description. Mushers are also immediately disqualified if they commit any action which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog. In all the years this race has been held only three Mushers have been disqualified under this rule.

Dogs that become exhausted or injured may be carried in the sled's "basket" to the next "dog-drop" site, where they are transported by the volunteer Iditarod Air Force to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center at Eagle River. There they are looked after by prison inmates until they are picked up by handlers or family members. Alternatively, they are flown to Nome for transport home [1c].

With technology, dog nutrition and care, Musher strategies are sure to improve. As they do, the Iditarod's records will fall. However, the Iditarod Trail Sled Race as an event will continue to renew the bond between humans and dogs not only against each other, but also against the wilderness and Alaska's brutal weather.

References and Further Reading

[1] Bill Sherwonit - 'Iditarod - the Great Race to Nome' Published by Sasquatch Books, Seattle, WA USA. Chapter 1 'The Iditarod's Roots and the Trail's History' Page 3

[1a] Ibid., Chapter 2 'The Race for Life Pages' Pages 16 - 21

[1b] Ibid., Chapter 4 'Origins of the Iditerod Race' Pages 23 - 31

[1c] Ibid., Chapter 5 'The Iditerod's Unsung Heroes' Pages 36 - 41