Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

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Aliy Zirkle's dog team on Anchorage's Fourth Avenue at the start of the 2003 Iditarod

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, usually just called the "Iditarod", is an annual sled dog race in Alaska, where mushers and teams of typically 16 dogs cover 1,161 miles (1,868 km) in eight to fifteen days from Willow (near Anchorage) to Nome. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams, evolving into the highly competitive race it is today. The current fastest winning time record was set in 2002 by Martin Buser with a time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds.[1]

Teams frequently race through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, and sub-zero weather and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach −100 °F (−73.3 °C). The trail runs through the U.S. state of Alaska. A ceremonial start occurs in the city of Anchorage and is followed by the official restart in Willow, a city in the south central region of the state. The restart was originally in Wasilla, but due to too little snow, the restart was permanently moved to Willow in 2008.[2] The trail proceeds from Willow up the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range into the sparsely populated interior, and then along the shore of the Bering Sea, finally reaching Nome in western Alaska. The teams cross a harsh landscape under the canopy of the Northern Lights, through tundra and spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers. While the start in Anchorage is in the middle of a large urban center, most of the route passes through widely separated towns and villages, and small Athabaskan and Inupiaq settlements. The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state, and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing. Each year the trails switch; every even year they take the north trail and odd years they take the south trail.

The race is the most popular sporting event in Alaska, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are local celebrities; this popularity is credited with the resurgence of recreational mushing in the state since the 1970s. 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 including the Swiss Martin Buser, who became the first international winner in 1992.

The Iditarod received more attention outside of the state after the 1985 victory of Libby Riddles, a long shot who became the first woman to win the race. Susan Butcher became the second woman to win the race, and went on to dominate for half a decade. Print and television journalists and crowds of spectators attend the ceremonial start at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and D Streets in Anchorage, and in smaller numbers at the checkpoints along the trail.


[edit] History

Portions of the Iditarod Trail were used by the Native American Inupiaq and Athabaskan peoples hundreds of years before the arrival of Russian fur traders in the 1800s, but the trail reached its peak between the late 1880s and the mid 1920s as miners arrived to dig coal and later gold, especially after the Alaska gold rushes at Nome in 1898, and at the "Inland Empire" along the Kuskokwim Mountains between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, in 1908.

The primary communication and transportation link to the rest of the world during the summer was the steamship; but between October and June the northern ports like Nome became icebound, and dog sleds delivered 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. Roadhouses where travelers could spend the night sprang up every 14 to 30 miles (23 to 48 km) until the end of the 1920s, when the mail carriers were replaced by bush pilots flying small aircraft and the roadhouses vanished. Dog sledding persisted in the rural parts of Alaska, but was almost driven into extinction by the spread of snowmobiles in the 1960s.

During its heyday, mushing was also a popular sport during the winter, when mining towns shut down. The first major competition was the tremendously popular 1908 All-Alaska Sweepstakes (AAS), which was started by Allan "Scotty" Alexander Allan, and ran 408 miles (657 km) from Nome to Candle and back. The event introduced the first Siberian huskies to Alaska in 1910, where they quickly became the favored racing dog, replacing the Alaskan malamute and mongrels bred from imported huskies and other large breeds, like setters and pointers. In 1914, the Norwegian immigrant Leonhard Seppala first appeared, and went on to win the race in 1915, 1916, and 1917, before the race was discontinued in 1918 during World War I.

The most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the "Great Race of Mercy." A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, especially the Inuit children who had no immunity to the "white man's disease," and the nearest quantity of antitoxin was found to be in Anchorage. Since the two available planes were both dismantled and had never been flown in the winter, Governor Scott Bone approved a safer route. The 20-pound (9.1 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles (480 km) from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where it was passed just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles (160 km).

The Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925, where it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions. However, most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo to be the true heroes of the run. Together they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum farther than any other team.

The Centennial Race, along portions of the Iditarod Trail, was the brainchild of Dorothy G. Page, who wanted to sponsor a sled dog race to honor mushers. With the support of Joe Redington Sr. (named the "Father of the Iditarod" by one of the local newspapers), the first race (then known as the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in honor of Leonhard Seppala) was held in 1967 and covered 25 miles (40 km) near Anchorage. The purse of USD $25,000 attracted a field of 58 racers, and the winner was Isaac Okleasik. The next race, in 1968, was canceled for lack of snow, and the small $1,000 purse in 1969 only drew 12 mushers.

Redington along with two school teachers, Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson was the impetus behind extending the race more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) along the historic route to Nome. The three co-founders of the race started in October 1972 to plan the now famous race. A major fundraising campaign which raised a purse of $51,000 was also started at the same time. This race was the first true Iditarod Race and was held in 1973, and attracted a field of 34 mushers, 22 of whom completed the race. Dorothy Page had nothing to do with the 1973 race, stating that she "washes her hands of the event". The event was a success; even though the purse dropped in the 1974 race, the popularity caused the field of mushers to rise to 44, and corporate sponsorship in 1975 put the race on secure financial footing. Despite the loss of sponsors during a dog abuse scandal in 1976, the Iditarod caused a resurgence of recreational mushing in the 1970s, and has continued to grow until it is now the largest sporting event in the state. While the race was originally patterned after the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the Iditarod Trail Committee promotes it as a commemoration of the serum delivery.

The race's namesake is the Iditarod Trail, which was designated as one of the first four National Historic Trails in 1978. The trail in turn is named for the town of Iditarod, which was an Athabaskan village before becoming the center of the Inland Empire's Iditarod Mining District in 1910, and then turning into a ghost town at the end of the local gold rush. The name Iditarod may be derived from the Athabaskan haiditarod, meaning "far distant place".

The main route of the Iditarod trail extends 938 miles (1,510 km) from Seward in the south to Nome in the northwest, and was first surveyed by Walter Goodwin in 1908, and then cleared and marked by the Alaska Road Commission in 1910 and 1911. The entire network of branching paths covers a total of 2,450 miles (3,940 km). Except for the start in Anchorage, the modern race follows parts of the historic trail.

[edit] Route

Routes of the Iditarod

This route is a grueling one. While always longer than 1,000 miles (1,600 km), the trail is actually composed of a northern route, which is run on even-numbered years, and a southern route, which is run on odd-numbered years. Both follow the same trail for 444 miles (715 km), from Anchorage to Ophir, where they diverge and then rejoin at Kaltag, 441 miles (710 km) from Nome. The race used the northern route until 1977, when the southern route was added to distribute the impact of the event on the small villages in the area, none of which have more than a few hundred inhabitants. Passing through the historic town of Iditarod was a secondary benefit.

Aside from the addition of the southern route, the route has remained relatively constant. The largest changes were the addition of the restart location in 1975, and the shift from Ptarmigan to Rainy Pass in 1976. Checkpoints along the route are also occasionally added or dropped, and the ceremonial start of the route and the restart point are commonly adjusted due to weather.

As a result the exact measured distance of the race varies, but according to the official website the northern route is 1,112 miles (1,790 km) long, and the southern route is 1,131 miles (1,820 km) long (ITC, Southern & Northern). The length of the race is also frequently rounded to either 1,050, 1,100, or 1,150 miles (1690, 1770 or 1850 km), but is officially set at 1,049 miles (1688 km), which honors Alaska's status as the 49th state.

[edit] Checkpoints

Start of the Iditarod National Historic Trail in Seward

There are currently 25 checkpoints on the northern route and 26 on the southern route where mushers must sign in. Some mushers prefer to camp on the trail and immediately press on, but others stay and rest. Mushers purchase supplies and equipment in Anchorage, which are flown ahead to each checkpoint by the Iditarod Air Force. The gear includes food, extra booties for the dogs, headlamps for night travel, batteries (for the lamps, music, or radios), tools and sled parts for repairs, and even lightweight sleds for the final dash to Nome. There are three mandatory rests that each team must take during the Iditarod: one 24-hour layover, to be taken at any checkpoint; one eight-hour layover, taken at any checkpoint on the Yukon River; and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Other than these three mandatory stops, the mushers may be racing their dogs.

In 1985, the race was suspended for the first time for safety reasons when weather prevented the Iditarod Air Force from delivering supplies to Rohn and Nikolai, the first two checkpoints in the Alaska Interior. Fifty-eight mushers and 508 dogs congregated at the small lodge in Rainy Pass for three days, while emergency shipments of food were flown in from Anchorage. Weather also halted the race later at McGrath, and the two stops added almost a week to the winning time.

[edit] Ceremonial start

(ITC, Southern & Northern)
Ceremonial start
Anchorage to Eagle River (20 mi)
Eagle River to Willow (29 mi)

The race starts on the first Saturday in March, at the first checkpoint on Fourth Avenue, in downtown Anchorage. For 2009, the race starts at 10:00 A.M. on Saturday, March 7. A five-block section of the street is barricaded off as a staging area, and snow is stockpiled and shipped in by truck the night before to cover the route to the first checkpoint. Prior to 1983, the race started at Mulcahy Park.

Shortly before the race, a ribbon-cutting ceremony is held under the flags representing the home countries and states of all competitors in the race. The first musher to depart at 10:00 a.m. AST is an honorary musher, selected for their contributions to dog sledding. From the first race in 1973 until 1980, the honorary musher was Leonhard Seppala, who covered the longest distance in the 1925 diphtheria serum run. The first competitor leaves at 10:02, and the rest follow, separated by two-minute intervals. The start order is determined during a banquet held two days prior by letting the mushers choose their starting position. Selections are made in the order of musher registrations and mushers may choose any position that has not been previously chosen. The teams are helped to the starting line by several handlers and lined up at the starting line while the musher sets their brake in anticipation of the signal to start.

On the sled will also be an "Idita-Rider". The Idita-Riders purchase via auction in the preceding January the right to ride; the first auction was held entirely online for the first time in 2005. In 2005, the average bid was USD $1918.09, and raised a total of $140,021.00. This is an exciting portion of the race for dogs and musher, as it is one of the few portions of the race where there are spectators, and the only spot where the trail winds through an urban environment. However, In "Iditarod Dreams," DeeDee Jonrowe wrote, "A lot of mushers hate the Anchorage start. They don't like crowds. They worry that their dogs get too excited and jumpy."[3] The time for covering this portion of the race does not count toward the official race time per rule #55, so the dogs, musher, and Idita-Rider are free to take this all in at a relaxed pace. The mushers then continue through several miles of city streets and city trails before reaching the foothills to the east of Anchorage, in Chugach State Park in the Chugach Mountains. The teams then follow Glenn Highway for two to three hours until they reach Eagle River, 20 miles (32 km) away. Once they arrive at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building, the mushers check in, unharness their teams, return them to their boxes, and drive 30 miles (48 km) of highway to the restart point.

During the first two races in 1973 and 1974, the teams crossed the mudflats of Cook Inlet to Knik (the original restart location), but this was discontinued because the weather frequently hovers around freezing, turning it into a muddy hazard. The second checkpoint also occasionally changes due to weather; in 2005, the checkpoint was changed from Eagle River to Campbell Airstrip, only 11 miles (18 km) away.

[edit] Restart

(ITC, Southern &
Willow to Yentna Station 14 mi (23 km)
Yentna Station to Skwentna 34 mi (55 km)
Skwentna to Finger Lake 45 mi (72 km)
Finger Lake to Rainy Pass 30 mi (48 km)
Into the Interior

After the dogs are shuttled to the third checkpoint, the race restarts the next day (Sunday) at 2:00 p.m. AST. Prior to 2004, the race was restarted at 10:00 a.m., but the time has been moved back so the dogs will be starting in colder weather, and the first mushers arrive at Skwentna well after dark, which reduces the crowds of fans who fly into the checkpoint.

The traditional restart location was the headquarters of the Iditarod Trail Committee, in Wasilla, but in 2008 the official restart was pushed further north to Willow Lake. In 2003 it was bumped 300 miles (480 km) north to Fairbanks due to warm weather and poor trail conditions. The mushers depart, separated by the same intervals as their arrival at the second checkpoint.

Thomas Knolmayer's team at the alternate start point in Willow in 2005

The first 100 miles (160 km) from Willow through the checkpoints at Yentna Station Station to Skwentna are known as "moose alley". The many moose in the area find it difficult to move and forage for food when the ground is thick with snow. As a result, the moose sometimes prefer to use pre-existing trails, causing hazards for the dog teams. In 1985, Susan Butcher lost her chance at becoming the first woman to win the Iditarod when her team made a sharp turn, and encountered a pregnant moose. The moose killed two dogs and seriously injured six more in the twenty minutes before Duane "Dewey" Halverson arrived and shot the moose. In 1982, Dick Mackey, Warner Vent, Jerry Austin, and their teams were driven into the forest by a charging moose.

Otherwise, the route to Skwentna is easy, over flat lowlands, and well marked by stakes or tripods with reflectors or flags. Most mushers push through the night, and the first teams usually arrive at Skwentna before dawn. Skwentna is a 40-minute hop from Anchorage by air, and dozens of planes land on the airstrip or on the Skwentna River, bringing journalists, photographers, and spectators.

From Skwentna, the route follows the Skwentna River into the southern part of the Alaska Range to Finger Lake. The stretch from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass, on Puntilla Lake, becomes more difficult, as the teams follow the narrow Happy River Gorge, where the trail balances on the side of a heavily forested incline. Rainy Pass is the most dangerous check point in the Iditarod. In 1985, Jerry Austin broke a hand and two of his dogs were injured when the sled went out of control and hit a stand of trees. Many others have suffered from this dangerous checkpoint. Rainy Pass is part of the Historic Iditarod Trail, but until 1976 the pass was inaccessible and route detoured through Ptarmigan Pass, also known as Hellsgate, because of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.

[edit] Into the Interior

Into the Interior
Rainy Pass to Rohn 48 mi (77 km)
Rohn to Nikolai 75 mi (121 km)
Nikolai to McGrath 54 mi (87 km)
McGrath to Takotna 18 mi (29 km)
Takotna to Ophir 25 mi (40 km)
Trails diverge

From Rainy Pass, the route continues up the mountain, past the tree line to the divide of the Alaska Range, and then passes down into the Alaska Interior. The elevation of the pass is 3,200 feet (980 m), and some nearby peaks exceed 5,000 feet (1,500 m). The valley up the mountains is exposed to blizzards. In 1974, there were several cases of frostbite when the temperature dropped to −50 °F (−45.6 °C), and the 50-mile-per-hour (80 km/h) winds caused the wind chill to drop to −130 °F (−90.0 °C). The wind also erases the trail and markers, making the path hard to follow. In 1976, retired colonel Norman Vaughan, who drove a dog team in Richard E. Byrd's 1928 expedition to the South Pole and competed in the only Olympic sled dog race, became lost for five days after leaving Rainy Pass, and nearly died.

The trail down Dalzell Gorge from the divide is regarded as the worst stretch of the trail. Steep and twisting, it drops 1,000 feet (300 m) in elevation in just 5 miles (8.0 km), and there is little traction so the teams are hard to control. Mushers have to ride the brake most of the way down, and use a snow hook for traction. In 1988, rookie Peryll Kyzer fell through an ice bridge into a creek, and spent the night wet. The route then follows Tatina River, which is also hazardous: in 1986 Butcher's lead dogs fell through the ice, but landed on a second layer of ice instead of falling into the river. In 1997, Ramey Smyth lost the end of his pinkie when it hit an overhanging branch while negotiating the gorge.[4]

Rohn is the next checkpoint, and is located in a spruce forest with no wind and a poor airstrip. The isolation, and its location immediately after the rigors of Rainy Pass, and before the 75-mile (121 km) haul to the next checkpoint, makes it a popular place for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour stop. From Rohn, the trail follows the south fork of the Kuskokwim River, where freezing water running over a layer of ice (overflow) is a hazard. In 1975, Vaughan was hospitalized for frostbite after running through an overflow. In 1973, Terry Miller and his team were almost drawn into a hole in the river by the powerful current in an overflow, but were rescued by Tom Mercer who came back to save them.

About 45 miles (72 km) from Rohn, the path leaves the river and passes into the Farewell Burn. In 1976, a wildfire turned 360,000 acres (1,500 km2) of spruce into blackened badland of burnt timber. Fallen trees, and falling through clumps of sedge or grass which balloon out into a canopy 2 feet (610 mm) above the ground, supporting a deceptively thin crust of snow, are common dangers. The Burn forces teams to move very slowly, and can cause paw injuries.

Nikolai, an Athabaskan settlement on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, is the first Native American village used as a checkpoint, and the arrival of the sled teams is one of the largest social events of the year. The route then follows the south fork of the Kuskokwim to the former mining town of McGrath. According to the 2000 census, it has a population of 401, making it the largest checkpoint in the Interior. McGrath is also notable for being the first site in Alaska to receive mail by aircraft (in 1924), heralding the end of the sled dog era. It still has a good airfield, so journalists are common.

The next checkpoint is the ghost town of Takotna, which was a commercial hub during the gold rush. Ophir, named for the reputed source of King Solomon's gold by religious prospectors, is the next checkpoint. By this stage in the race, the front-runners are several days ahead of those in the back of the pack.

[edit] Divided path

(ITC, Northern)
Northern route (even years)
Ophir to Cripple (59 mi)
Cripple to Ruby (112 mi)
Ruby to Galena (52 mi)
Galena to Nulato (52 mi)
Nulato to Kaltag (42 mi)
Trails rejoin

After Ophir, the trail diverges into a northern and a southern route, which rejoin at Kaltag. On even years, the northern route is used; on odd years the southern route is used. During the first few Iditarods there was only one trail, which followed the route of what is now the northern trail. In the late 1970s, the southern leg of the route was added to give the southern villages a chance to host the Iditarod, and also to allow the route to pass through the trail's namesake, the historical town of Iditarod. The two routes differ by less than 10 miles (16 km).

The northern route first passes through Cripple, which is 503 miles (810 km) from Anchorage, and 609 miles (980 km) from Nome (ITC, Northern), making it the middlemost checkpoint. From Cripple, the route passes through Sulatna Crossing to Ruby, on the Yukon River. Ruby is another former gold rush town which became an Athabaskan village.

(ITC, Southern)
Southern route (odd years)
Ophir to Iditarod (90 mi)
Iditarod to Shageluk (65 mi)
Shageluk to Anvik (25 mi)
Anvik to Grayling (18 mi)
Grayling to Eagle Island (60 mi)
Eagle Island to Kaltag (70 mi)
Trails rejoin

The southern route first passes through the ghost town of Iditarod, which is the alternate halfway mark, at 599 miles (964 km) from Anchorage, and 532 miles (856 km) from Nome (ITC, Southern). From Iditarod the route goes through the Athabaskan villages of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island.

Ruby and Anvik are on the longest river in Alaska, the Yukon, which is swept by strong winds which can wipe out the trail and drop the windchill below −100 °F (−73.3 °C). A greater hazard is the uniformity of this long stretch: Suffering from sleep deprivation, many mushers report hallucinations (Sherwonit, 1991).

(ITC, Southern & Northern)
Trails rejoin
Kaltag to Unalakleet (90 mi)
Last dash
Unalakleet to Shaktoolik (42 mi)
Shaktoolik to Koyuk (48 mi)
Koyuk to Elim (48 mi)
Elim to Golivin (28 mi)
Golivin to White Mountain (18 mi)
White Mountain to Safety (55 mi)
Safety to Nome (22 mi)
End of Iditarod
Southern route: 1,131 miles
Northern route: 1,112 miles

Both trails meet again in Kaltag, which for hundreds of years has been a gateway between the Athabaskan villages in the Interior, and the Inuit settlements on the coast of the Bering Sea. The "Kaltag Portage" runs through a 1,000-foot (300 m) pass down to the Inuit town of Unalakleet, on the shore of the Bering Sea.

[edit] Last dash

In the early years of the Iditarod, the last stretch along the shores of the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea to Nome was a slow, easy trip. Now that the race is more competitive, the last stretch has become one long dash to the finish.

According to the 2000 census, the village of Unalakleet has a population of 747, making it the largest Native American town along the Iditarod. The majority of the residents are Inupiat, the Inuit people of the Bering Strait region. The town's name means the "place where the east wind blows", and the buildings are commonly buried under snowdrifts. Racers are met by church bells or sirens, and mobbed by crowds.

From Unalakleet, the route passes through the hills to the Inupiat village of Shaktoolik, which is also buried in snow, after the northeast wind brings ground blizzards. The route then passes across the frozen Norton Bay, where the markers are young spruce trees that were dropped into holes in the ice, where they froze, to Koyuk. After the Bay, the route swings west along the south shore of Seward Peninsula though the tiny villages of Elim, Golovin and White Mountain.

Robert Sørlie's team approaches Nome, 2007.

All teams must rest their dogs for at least eight hours at White Mountain, before the final sprint. From White Mountain to Safety is 77 miles (124 km), and from Safety to Nome is just 22 miles (35 km). The last leg is crucial because the lead teams are often within a few hours of each other at this point. As of 1991, the race has been decided by less than an hour seven different times, less than five minutes three times, and in the closest race the winner and the runner-up were only one second apart.

The old "Burled Arch", the official finish line in Nome, Alaska, which collapsed in 2001

The official finish line is the Red "Fox" Olson Trail Monument, more commonly known as the "burled arch", in Nome. The original burled arch lasted from 1975, until it was destroyed by dry rot and years of inclement weather in 2001. The new arch is a spruce log with two distinct burls, similar but not identical to the old arch. While the old arch spelled out "End of the Iditarod Dog Race", the new arch has an additional word: "End of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race".

A "Widow's Lamp" is lit and remains hanging on the arch until the last competitor crosses the finish line. The tradition is based on the kerosene lamp lit and hung outside a roadhouse, when a musher carrying goods or mail was en route.

On the way to the arch, each musher passes down Front Street, and down the fenced-off 50-yard (46 m) end stretch. The city's fire siren is sounded as each musher hits the 2-mile mark before the finish line. While the winner of the first race in 1973 completed the competition in just over 20 days, preparation of the trail in advance of the dog sled teams and improvements in dog training have dropped the winning time to under 10 days in every race since 1996.

An awards banquet is held the Sunday after the winner's arrival. Brass belt buckles and special patches are given to everyone who completes the race.

[edit] Mushers

More than 50 mushers enter each year. Most are from rural South Central Alaska, the Interior, and the "Bush"; few are urban, and only a small percentage are from the Lower 48, Canada, or overseas. Some are professionals who make their living by selling dogs, running sled dog tours, giving mushing instruction, and speaking about their Iditarod experiences. Others make money from Iditarod-related advertising contracts or book deals. Some are amateurs who make their living hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening, or with seasonal jobs, though lawyers, surgeons, airline pilots, veterinarians, biologists, and CEOs have competed. Per rules#1 and #2, only experienced mushers are allowed to compete in the Iditarod. Mushers are required to participate in three smaller races in order to qualify for the Iditarod. However, they are allowed to lease dogs to participate in the Iditarod and are not required to take written exams to determine their knowledge of mushing, the dogs they race or canine first aid. If a musher has been convicted of a charge of animal neglect, or if the Iditarod Trail Committee determines the musher is unfit, they are not allowed to compete. The Iditarod Trail Committee once disqualified musher Jerry Riley for alleged dog abuse and Rick Swenson after one of his dogs expired after running through overflow. The Iditarod later reinstated both men and allowed them to race. Rick Swenson is now on the Iditarod's board of directors. Rookie mushers must pre-qualify by finishing an assortment of qualifying races first. As of 2006, the combined cost of the entry fee, dog maintenance, and transportation was estimated by one musher at between USD $20,000 to $30,000.[5] But that figure varies depending upon how many dogs a musher has, what the musher feeds the dogs and how much is spent on housing and handlers. Expenses faced by modern teams include lightweight gear including thousands of booties and quick-change runners, special high-energy dog foods, veterinary care, and breeding costs. According to Athabaskan musher Ken Chase, "the big expenses [for rural Alaskans] are the freight and having to buy dog food". (Hutchinson) Most modern teams cost $10,000 to $40,000, and the top 10 spend between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. The top finisher won at least $69,000, the remaining top thirty finishers won an average of $26,500 each.[6] Mushers make money from their sponsorships, speaking fees, advertising contracts and book deals.

[edit] Dogs

An Alaskan malamute, the original Inuit sled dog breed
A Siberian husky, the fast 1908 import from Russia

The original sled dogs were Alaskan malamutes bred from wolves by the Mahlemuit tribe, and are one of the earliest domesticated breeds known. They were soon crossbred with Alaskan huskies, hounds, setters, spaniels, German shepherds, and wolves. As demand for dogs skyrocketed, a black market formed at the end of the 19th century, which funneled large dogs of any breed to the gold rush. Siberian huskies were introduced in the early 20th century and became the most popular racing breed during the AAS. The original dogs were chosen for strength and stamina, but modern racing dogs are all mixed-breed huskies bred for speed, tough feet, endurance, good attitude, and most importantly the desire to run. Dogs bred for marathon races weigh from 45 to 55 pounds (20–25 kg), and those bred for sprinting weigh 5 to 10 pounds (2.3–4.5 kg) less, but the best competitors of both types are interchangeable.

The huskies are a northern breed that prefer weather below freezing and above −50 °F (−45.6 °C). They sleep with their tail curled over their nose, which provides extra insulation once they are buried in snow.

Starting in 1974, all dogs are examined by veterinarians before the start of the race, who check teeth, eyes, tonsils, heart, lungs, joints, and feet; and look for signs of illegal drugs, improperly healed wounds, and pregnancy. All dogs are identified and tracked by microchip implants and collar tags. On the trails, volunteer veterinarians examine each dog's heart, hydration, appetite, attitude, weight, lungs, and joints at all of the checkpoints, and look for signs of foot and shoulder injuries, respiration problems, dehydration, diarrhea, and exhaustion. When mushers race through checkpoints the dogs do not get physical exams. Mushers are not allowed to administer drugs that mask the signs of injury, including stimulants, muscle relaxants, sedatives, anti-inflammatories, and anabolic steroids. As of 2005, the Iditarod claims that no musher has been banned for giving drugs to dogs.[7] However the Iditarod never reveals the results of tests on the dogs.

Each team is composed of twelve to sixteen dogs, and no more may be added during the race. At least six dogs must be in harness when crossing the finish line in Nome. Mushers keep a veterinary diary on the trail, but are not required to have it signed by a veterinarian at each checkpoint. Dogs that become exhausted or injured may be carried in the sled's "basket" to the next "dog-drop" site, where they are transported by the volunteer Iditarod Air Force to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center at Eagle River where they are taken care of by prison inmates until picked up by handlers or family members, or they are flown to Nome for transport home.

The dogs are well-conditioned athletes. Training starts in late summer or early fall, and intensifies between November and March; competitive teams run 2,000 miles (3,200 km) before the race. When there is no snow dog drivers train using wheeled carts or all-terrain vehicles set in neutral.[citation needed] An Alaskan husky in the Iditarod will burn about 11,000 calories each day; on a body-weight basis this rate of caloric burn is eight times that of a human Tour de France cyclist. Similarly the VO2 max (aerobic capacity) of a typical Iditarod dog is about 240 milligrams of oxygen per kilogram of body weight, which is about three times that of a human Olympic marathon runner.[8]

[edit] Criticism from animal rights groups

Animal protection activists say that the Iditarod is not a commemoration of the 1925 serum delivery. The race was originally called the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in honor of Leonhard Seppala. According to statements made by Dorothy Page, the media perpetuated the false notion that the race was established to honor the drivers and dogs who carried the serum.[9] Animal protection activists also say that the Iditarod is dog abuse, and therefore it is not an adventure or a test of human perseverance. They are also critical of the race because dogs have died and been injured during the race. The practice of tethering dogs on short chains, which is commonly used by mushers in their kennels, at checkpoints and dog drops, is also criticized. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spokesperson Jennifer O'Connor says, "We're totally opposed to the race for the cruelty issues associated with it".[4] The ASPCA said, "General concerns arise whenever intense competition results in dogs being pushed beyond their endurance or capabilities," according to Vice President Stephen Zawistowski.[4] Dr. Paula Kislak, President of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, who practices veterinary medicine in California, has been very critical of the care the dogs receive.

On May 18, 2007, the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors announced that they had suspended Ramy Brooks for abusing his sled dogs. The suspension is for the 2008 and 2009 races, and following that Brooks would be on probation for 3 years. [10]

[edit] Records and awards

Dick Wilmarth won the first race in the year 1973, in 20 days, 0 hours, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds. The fastest winning time is Martin Buser's 2002 finish, in 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds. The closest finish was the 1978 victory by Dick Mackey. The win is controversial, because while the nose of his lead dog crossed the finish line one second ahead of Rick Swenson's lead dog, Swenson's body crossed the finish line first.

The first musher to win four races was Rick Swenson, in 1982. In 1991 he became the only person to win five times, and the only musher to win the race in three different decades. Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley, Martin Buser and Jeff King are the only other four-time winners.

Mary Shields was the first woman to complete the race, in 1974. In 1985 Libby Riddles was the only musher to brave a blizzard, becoming the first woman to win the race. She was featured in Vogue, and named the Professional Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation. Susan Butcher withdrew from the same race after two of her dogs were killed by a moose, but became the second woman to win the race the next year, and subsequently won three of the next four races. Butcher was the second musher to win four races, and the only musher to finish in either first or second place for five straight years.

Doug Swingley of Montana was the first non-Alaskan to win the race, in 1995. Mushers from 14 countries have competed in the Iditarod races, and in 1992 Martin Buser—Swiss, but a resident of Alaska since 1979—was the first foreigner to win the race. Buser became a naturalized U.S. citizen in a ceremony under the Burled Arch in Nome following the 2002 race. The Norwegian Robert Sørlie was the first foreigner not resident in the United States to win the race in 2003.

In 2007 Lance Mackey became the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year; a feat he repeated in 2008. Mackey also joined his father and brother, Dick and Rick Mackey as an Iditarod champion. All three Mackeys raced with the bib number 13, and coincidentally all won their respective titles on their sixth try.

The "Golden Harness" is most frequently given to the lead dog or dogs of the winning team. However, it is decided by a vote of the mushers, and in 2008 was given to Babe, the lead dog of Ramey Smyth, the 3rd place finisher. Babe was almost 11 years old when she finished the race, and it was her ninth Iditarod. The "Rookie of the Year" award is given to the musher who places the best among those finishing their first Iditarod. A red lantern signifying perseverance is awarded to the last musher to cross the finish line. The size of the purse determines how many mushers receive cash prizes. The first place winner also receives a new pickup truck.

[edit] List of winners

Year Musher Lead dog(s) Time (h:min:s)
1973 Dick Wilmarth Hotfoot 20 days, 00:49:41
1974 Carl Huntington Nugget 20 days, 15:02:07
1975 Emmitt Peters Nugget & Digger 14 days, 14:43:45
1976 Gerald Riley Puppy & Sugar 18 days, 22:58:17
1977 Rick Swenson Andy & Old Buddy 16 days, 16:27:13
1978 Dick Mackey Skipper & Shrew 14 days, 18:52:24
1979 Rick Swenson Andy & Old Buddy 15 days, 10:37:47
1980 Joe May Wilbur & Cora Gray 14 days, 07:11:51
1981 Rick Swenson Andy & Slick 12 days, 08:45:02
1982 Rick Swenson Andy 16 days, 04:40:10
1983 Rick Mackey Preacher & Jody 12 days, 14:10:44
1984 Dean Osmar Red & Bullet 12 days, 15:07:33
1985 Libby Riddles Axle & Dugan 18 days, 00:20:17
1986 Susan Butcher Granite & Mattie 11 days, 15:06:00
1987 Susan Butcher Granite & Mattie 11 days, 02:05:13
1988 Susan Butcher Granite & Tolstoi 11 days, 11:41:40
1989 Joe Runyan Rambo & Ferlin the Husky 11 days, 05:24:34
1990 Susan Butcher Sluggo & Lightning 11 days, 01:53:23
1991 Rick Swenson Goose 12 days, 16:34:39
1992 Martin Buser Tyrone & D2 10 days, 19:17:15
1993 Jeff King Herbie & Kitty 10 days, 15:38:15
1994 Martin Buser D2 & Dave 10 days, 13:05:39
1995 Doug Swingley Vic & Elmer 10 days, 13:02:39
1996 Jeff King Jake & Booster 9 days, 05:43:13
1997 Martin Buser Blondie & Fearless 9 days, 08:30:45
1998 Jeff King Red & Jenna 9 days, 05:52:26
1999 Doug Swingley Stormy, Cola & Elmer 9 days, 14:31:07
2000 Doug Swingley Stormy & Cola 9 days, 00:58:06
2001 Doug Swingley Stormy & Peppy 9 days, 19:55:50
2002 Martin Buser Bronson 8 days, 22:46:02
2003 Robert Sørlie Tipp 9 days, 15:47:36
2004 Mitch Seavey Tread 9 days, 12:20:22
2005 Robert Sørlie Sox & Blue 9 days, 18:39:30
2006 Jeff King Salem & Bronte 9 days, 11:11:36
2007 Lance Mackey Larry & Lippy 9 days, 05:08:41
2008 Lance Mackey Larry & Handsome 9 days, 11:46:48
2009 Lance Mackey Larry & Maple 9 days, 21:38:46

[edit] Most wins

Musher Wins Years
Rick Swenson 5 1991, 1982, 1981, 1979, 1977
Jeff King 4 2006, 1998, 1996, 1993
Martin Buser 4 2002, 1997, 1994, 1992
Doug Swingley 4 2001, 2000, 1999, 1995
Susan Butcher 4 1990, 1988, 1987, 1986
Lance Mackey 3 2009, 2008, 2007
Robert Sørlie 2 2005, 2003

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc. "Awards". Retrieved on March 25 2007. 
  2. ^ Anchorage daily news. "Iditarod restart". Retrieved on September 24 2008. 
  3. ^ Lew Freedman & DeeDee Jonrowe. "Iditarod Dreams," Seattle: Epicenter Press, 1995 p. 20.
  4. ^ a b c | Are dogs abused? Depends who you ask
  5. ^ Snow Bound Kennels, 2006
  6. ^ CNN, 2006
  7. ^ Sorlie Holds Early Lead in Iditarod, By STEVE WILSTEIN, AP Sports Columnist, March 8, 2005
  8. ^ "Winterize Rover for cold-weather fitness, Cornell veterinarian advises; Lessons from the Cornell sled dog team can be applied to house pets", Cornell Science News, December 9, 1996
  9. ^ Jeff Schultz, "Iditarod," Seattle: Alaska Northwest Books, second edition, 1991, page 48
  10. ^ KTVA: Ramy Brooks Decision
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