Photograph by Alaska Stock Images
National Geographic Education
A 1,150-mile race over mountain passes, frozen rivers, and inhospitable tundra, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the most grueling competitions in the world. In fact, its nickname is “The Last Great Race.”
The annual contest finds seasoned athletes, called mushers, steering dog sleds pulled by between 12 to 16 sled dogs. The mushers and their teams race from Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, northward to Nome on the state’s far-flung Seward Peninsula. The race always begins on the first Saturday in March. For most teams, the Iditarod takes from 10 to 17 tiring days to complete. The Iditarod begins on Saturday, March 6, 2010.
Even though the terrain can be trying, Jeff King—a musher whose teams won the 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006 Iditarod—says that the landscape does not usually pose the biggest threat to the racing teams. “Typically Alaska’s weather is one of the most predictable challenges and can be so influential in the event,” he says.
King says that weather conditions during the 2009 Iditarod were particularly harsh due to temperatures of 25 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) coupled with 40-mile-per-hour winds. Back in 1973, the year of the first race, competitors in the Iditarod were racing in an event where wind-chill temperatures hit 130 degrees below zero at times.
Besides bone-chilling temperatures, the Alaskan weather also contributes to the conditions on the trail, which used to be a supply and mail route. The route connected the state’s coastal towns to its interior mining camps. Now, airplanes and snowmobiles have taken the place of dog sleds. The Alaskan weather can dump inches of snow on the trail overnight, or leave the trail dry for days at a time.
“Snow cover—too much snow or not enough snow—can turn just about any place into the best or worst portion of the trail,” King says.
Many mushers dread the climb up to 3,160-foot-high Rainy Pass, the trail’s highest point. Others are anxious about the so-called Happy River Steps. This part of the trail is a steep trek down the Happy River Gorge. The area is said to have “steps” because of the sharp turns and switchbacks. Both Rainy Pass and the Happy River Steps are in the first part of the race.
Surprisingly, King does not cite either Rainy Pass or the Happy River Steps as the Iditarod’s toughest spots. Rather, he notes that a section where dirt and boulders can protrude through the snow is particularly challenging. The terrain of “the Farewell Burn,” near the town of Nikolai, can beat up the mushers and their dogs.
“There’s an area of the race called ‘The Burn’ . . . where we travel for many miles on the game trails of the local bison herds,” he says. Because of the local bison, sometimes called buffalo, this part of the trail is also known as the Buffalo Tunnels. “Combined with low snow and high winds, this area is often very sparse.”
There are actually two Iditarod courses. In even-numbered years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race goes north, while in odd-numbered years, the race heads south. See the divergent Iditarod trails here, in this trail map from the official site of the Iditarod.
The northern route has 26 checkpoints the teams must pass through, and the southern version has 27 checkpoints. At checkpoints, mushers can pick up food for themselves and their dogs. These provisions are delivered by a team of bush planes referred to as the “Iditarod Air Force.” In addition, veterinarians can make sure all of the competing dogs are healthy before the teams continue.
During the race, teams are required to make three rest stops. One is a 24-hour stop at a checkpoint of the musher’s choosing. The second is an eight-hour stop at any checkpoint along the Yukon River. The last is another eight-hour break in the village of White Mountain, which is located just 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.
Dr. Michael Davis, a veterinarian who has worked with the Iditarod on research to benefit the race’s sled dogs, is wholly impressed with the human athletes in the event. “If I were to list 10 characteristics of mushers, the first six would be ‘tough,’ because more than anything, the race is incredibly grueling on the mushers,” he says. “It’s not feats of strength or power lifting or anything like that. It’s just the ability to keep going.”
Even though the mushers are superb athletes, Davis believes that the dogs in the Iditarod are even more impressive. The original sled dogs were big Alaskan malamutes, but the wiry Siberian husky became the most popular sled dog in the early 20th century. Now, the favorite type of sled dog is the so-called Alaskan husky. Alaskan huskies aren’t actually a breed and usually resemble a larger version of the Siberian husky. Unlike true breeds, which are defined by specific physical characteristics and ancestry, Alaskan huskies are defined by one characteristic: their ability to pull sleds.
“Obviously, they have to have some pretty significant athletic capacity,” Davis says. “They need to have a thick hair coat. They need to have a good temperament to become the prototype ‘man’s best friend,’ in the context of if you ask them to do something they will give it 110 percent simply because you asked them to.”
Four-time Iditarod champion King says that he prepares himself and his dogs for the race throughout the year.
“The Iditarod is really thought of as more of a lifestyle than an event,” King says. “There’s something to do year round. It’s not unlike [the training of] a professional bike racer or professional football player. It’s a lifetime pursuit of excellence.”
A California native who moved to Alaska after discovering the stories of Jack London, King entered his first Iditarod back in 1981. As he prepares to compete in his 22nd Iditarod, King still approaches the competition with reverence.
“It’s the Super Bowl of dog sled racing,” he says. “There’s lots of events, but this is the crown jewel, and it’s the one that we are really working forward to each year as a goal, kind of the grand finale, the crown jewel.”