Because of lack of snow in Willow, Alaska, this year’s Iditarod race officially starts in Fairbanks today March 9. After a ceremonial start in Anchorage, the 42 year-old race used to start in Wasilla just to the north of Anchorage. It also was moved to Fairbanks in 2003 for lack of snow, and in 2008 it was shifted to Willow, a little further north of Wasilla.
Officially called the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the first more than 1000-mile race from Anchorage (the ceremonial start) to Nome began March 3, 1973. The teams average 16 dogs, which means over a thousand dogs leave the start (with two-minute spacing).
Sled dogs were long used by natives for transport. They became both popular and essential to miners in the 1880s, and the Iditarod trail (with its branches) was one of the main routes. One of the most famous events in Alaskan history was the transport of diphtheria serum from Anchorage to Nome in 1925 when an epidemic threatened the city, especially the children. A relay of twenty mushers took the serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome in just five and a half days. A 25-mile race in 1967 commemorated this historic event. But the race did not catch the imagination of dog sledders or the public until 1973 when the longer event was created to test both mushers and their dogs.
In 1985 Libby Riddles was the first woman to win, and the race really began to get national and world-wide attention when Susan Butcher won three times in 1986, 1987 and 1980. She won again in 1990.
Mushers made a living on the trail from the 1880s to the 1920s, but today it is a sport. Today they have to support themselves and their dogs in other ways. Jeff King, set a record in 1993, won again in 1996, 1998 and again in 2006 at age 50. He is one of six to win four races (Rick Swenson, an early racer, won his fifth in 1991).
We visited King’s home in 2008. He is a showman. He is an author. And he adds to his income by entertaining tourists at his kennel just outside Denali National Park.
When one gets off the bus, one is handed a puppy. Later we were informed it is part of the puppy’s training. Training to run with and against other dogs in fierce winter conditions is important. They might face sub-zero temperatures. They might face wind chill as much as one hundred degrees below Fahrenheit. They might face a moose — moose also find walking on a cleared trail easier than walking in deep snow. But one of their biggest challenges is facing hoards of enthusiastic race fans, especially at the ceremonial start.