The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
By Kelly Croslis
March 3rd will be the start date for the 2012 Iditarod race, as the day approaches, excitement builds but there are many who are not aware of what truly goes into this test of strength, stamina and determination.
The Iditarod trail sled dog race, or commonly known simply as the Iditarod is held annually, covering over 1,049 miles in 9 to 15 days, from anchorage to Nome. The race begins on the first Saturday of March in downtown Anchorage. On average, there are more than 50 mushers and a thousand dogs, mostly from Alaska, but in recent years the field of competitors as expanded to include mushers from fourteen countries. The initial race was held in 1973 attracted only 34 mushers, 22 of whom could finish the race. The race is named for the Iditarod trail, one of the first four national historic trails named in 1978 and named for the town of Iditarod; an Athabascan village before it became the center of the inland empire’s Iditarod mining district in 1910. Except for the race starting in A the race follows sections of the trail. Historically, portions of the Iditarod trail were used by the Native American’s before fur traders from Russia arrived in the 1800s; the trail then became a popular route from 1880 and 1920 during the Alaska gold rush.
Two separate routes exist for the race, a northern route and a southern route. Until 1977, the northern route was the route used, the southern route was added in order bring the impact of the race to smaller villages in the area, many having a few hundred residents, and runs through the trail’s name sake, the town of Iditarod. The northern route covers 1,112 miles, the southern route 1,131 miles. Along the race trail, there are 26 check points where the mushers are required to check in. At three of these checkpoints, mushers must take a 24-hour layover, at any checkpoint, eight-hour layover at any checkpoint on the Yukon River, and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Prior to the race, supplies are purchased in anchorage and flown to the various checkpoints, so they are available to the mushers. In addition to being able to rest at the checkpoints, veterinarians are on hand to check the dogs and make sure their health is being maintained during the races. The finish line is the Red “fox” Olsson trail monument, or the “Burled Arch” in Nome. A “Widows lamp” is lit and remains hanging on the arch until the last musher crosses the finish line.
In order to qualify for the Iditarod mushers are required to participate in three smaller races, rookie mushers need to pre-qualify by finishing several qualifying races, in any case the main requirement is a participant must be an experienced musher. A musher has a dog team of 12 to 16 dogs and not are not permitted to add any dogs during the race, in addition when the race finishes at least is of the dogs must be in harness. The most common dog used for mushing is the Siberian Huskie, today the racing dogs are mixed breed’s Huskies, which are bred for speed, endurance, good attitude and most of all the need to run.
For those who do finish the race, the award of a “golden harness” is given to the lead dog of the winning team; a “rookie of the year” award is given to the musher who places the best among the rookies. For the musher who finishes last is given the red lantern, signifying perseverance. The amount of money given to the mushers is determined by the number of mushers who receive cash prizes; in addition a new pickup truck is given the musher who finishes first.