The relationship between dogs and people in the Arctic spans thousands of years. In winter, the harsh Arctic landscape is covered in snow and ice and a sled was the most practical way to travel for the indigenous people. Dogs have incredible endurance and strength, and their thick coats keep them warm in cold weather. This makes them perfect for pulling sleds and large loads throughout the north.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s during the Klondike Gold Rush, people flocked to the Yukon and Alaska. In Alaska, fortune-seekers sailed to Seward and then made their way north overland through the heart of the territory to Nome. They established a route that connected trails originally established by the native people. Dogs were indispensable at this time. They hauled people, cargo, and mail to these places unsuitable for horses and roads. The route became known as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, and later the Iditarod Trail.
In 1925, during an outbreak of diptheria, 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs relayed life-saving serum from Nenana, near Fairbanks, to Nome. The run was completed in five and a half days and saved the town from an epidemic. The race became known as the Great Serum Run and the lead dog on the last leg to Nome was famous thereafter. You can still see the statue of Balto in New York City’s Central Park.
But not long after the Serum Run, the airplane began to take over the duties of the sled dog and the sport soon fell out of favor. Native Alaskans continued to use the dogs as a means of transportation and for hunting until the snowmobile, or “iron dog”, made it’s way to the north in the 1960’s. At the end of the decade, there was an effort to restore and preserve the historic Iditarod trail and to commemorate the trail with a sled dog race.
The first official Iditarod race took place in 1973 with twenty-two finishers. It took twenty days to complete, about twice as long as it takes these days. The race started a resurgence in dog sledding that continues to this day. About 50 or more mushers enter the race every year and many of the mushers and their dogs are local celebrities. The Iditarod starts on the first Monday of March with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. The race’s official start is the following day in the smaller town of Willow.
When our friends asked my husband and I to join them in Anchorage for the Iditarod start, we jumped at the chance. People from all over the world travel to Anchorage for the event and the town is full of energy and excitement. Early on Saturday morning we made our way downtown to check out the dogs. The main street was closed off and they hauled in snow to cover the road. It snowed a few inches the day before, but it was the first snow in a while and certainly not enough to cover the route.
The main street was lined with trucks with dogs chained up around them. Most of them were snoozing away in the snow or in their quarters and others expressed their joy with excited yips. Surely they were aware that their journey would start soon. We read off all the dog names and chatted with some of the mushers, wishing them luck. We even got a special souvenir, a real homemade stinky used dog booty! Honestly, we were totally thrilled.
Finally we heard the announcement for the first musher and caught a glimpse of them through the crowds. We walked further down the street to find a less crowded spot and get a better view of the dogs as they charged by us. We felt the excitement of each team as they sped by and we gave them a hardy cheer and wished them godspeed.
Later, after all the mushers had completed their ceremonial run, we lined ourselves up on the snowy street to run with the reindeer. Yep, reindeer. Male ones with huge antlers. We weren’t alone, though. Thousands of people flee from the reindeer down a few blocks of the main street. A thrilling end to a exciting day in Alaska.
Bonus Camp Reads!
Fast into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow
Debbie fell in love with mushing after a friend gave her an old sled dog, Salt, for a pet during a hard time in her life. She was in her forties and a mother of two when she finally decided to run the Iditarod. She had experience running other races and had the full support of her family, all mushers in their own right, but unfortunately had to scratch on her first try. Two years later, Debbie was back on the trail with her memorable dogs Kanga, Juliet, Lil’ Su, Piney, Creek, Zeppy, Nacho and Taiga. This time, her tenacity and resilience got her to the finish line on Nome. This is a beautiful story of love and dedication between a family and their dogs. // Hardcover