Alaska’s 40th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is scheduled to begin Saturday, March 3 at 12 noon in Anchorage, AK. The dog sled race (or mushing as referred to by locals) covers 1,049 miles through a harsh landscape of tundra and spruce forests, over hills, mountain passes, and across rivers. The race is viewed as a symbol of Alaska’s early history and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing.
The Iditarod Trail was originally used by Native Americans in the 1800s. Between the late 1880s and the mid 1920s, miners used the trail, as they dug for coal, then gold during the Gold Rush. Between October and June, northern ports like Nome became icebound, and dog sleds were the only option for the delivery of mail, firewood, mining equipment, gold ore, food, furs, and other needed supplies between the trading posts and settlements across the Interior and along the western coast. The trail’s use declined in the 1920’s once bush pilots flying small aircraft replaced deliveries. Dog sledding persists in the rural parts of Alaska, although it was eliminated by the spread of snowmobiles in the 1960s.
Today’s race is an idyllic memorial to the famous 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, with the nearest antitoxin located in Anchorage. With no planes available, Governor Scott Bone approved the antitoxin’s transport first by train from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, then via mushers to Nome. Twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs relayed the serum 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles (160 km).
The trail is composed of two routes: a northern route, which is run on even-numbered years, and a southern route, which is run on odd-numbered years. Both sections of trail are a part of the Iditarod National Historical Trail.
Mushing has always been a popular sport in winter, when mining towns would shut down. The Iditarod is the most popular sporting event in Alaska, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are local celebrities. While the yearly field of more than fifty mushers and about a thousand dogs is still largely Alaskan, competitors from fourteen countries have completed the event.