One of Alaska’s treasures is the Iditarod. It’s an annual dog mushing race held in March. Mushers come from all over the world with the hope of finishing the 1000 miles race to Nome, through Arctic conditions.
Only 17% of Alaska’s tourists visit in the winter. Yes, the summers are beautiful, albeit short. But winter is a different experience. For me, that’s when nature comes alive.
It’s been interesting to see the different types of people who are attracted to mushing. From a PhD scientist from Norway, to a 90% disabled veteran soldier, to an Australian who grew up having never seen snow. There’s also a lady who has raced the Iditarod 30 times and is a cancer survivor.
Trail Stories from 2015
The trail stories can be uplifting, distressful and heartwarming. Here are a couple from 2015:
Karin Hendrickson (4-time race finisher)
A few months prior to the Iditarod, an SUV lost control and ran off the road into her sled team on a training run. All the dogs were fine, but Karin had three broken vertebrae that required recovery in a body cast.
Bryan Bearss, a local elementary teacher came out of a 7-year mushing retirement to be her substitute driver so her dog team could race. (Unfortunately Bryan had to scratch from the race after making it about 800 miles.)
Lance Mackey (4 time champion) and his brother Jason Mackey
They are 3rd generation mushers with quite a family legacy, as their father and grandfather were both Iditarod champions.
In 2015, Lance was struggling with a circulation disease that made him especially susceptible to frostbite. Jason was expected to place in the top 20.
But after just a few checkpoints, Lance could barely use his hands. A musher is disqualified if they accept outside help (other than medical for self or dogs), but a musher can help another musher on the trail.
So Jason forsake his race standings and took over a majority of dog care for Lance at the checkpoints. Mushers barely have the stamina to maintain their own teams in this event. This was an incredible act of love.
Think they went through enough? Not even close.
Near Koyuk, Lance found another musher’s dog team, but no driver. Lance managed to connect the two sleds and drive both teams, totaling 21 dogs, to the next checkpoint. Along the way, Lance frantically looked for the missing musher, Scott Janssen. Scott shares an emotional interview as he describes being reunited with his team. The race was over for Janssen but Lance and Jason continued.
Finally … after 12 grueling days on the trail, the Mackey brothers crossed the finish line together. There is definitely more than one way to win a race.
Highlights of Race Rules
Required Equipment: Each musher must carry dog food, vet book, snow shoes, cold weather sleeping bag, axe, a letter (called Trail Mail), pot and fuel to heat at least 3 gallons of fuel, booties for the dogs, and cables/harnesses for the team. Optional items commonly seen are ski poles and GPS units; however any device capable of two way communication is strictly prohibited. (one musher was disqualified in 2015 because he didn’t realize his iTouch had WiFi capability – even though he didn’t use it)
Each musher ships about 1800 lbs of dog food and extra booties to the 13 checkpoints along the trail. The booties have to be replaced about every 30 miles. They can also ship up to two replacement sleds along the trail as well.
Required number of dogs: Must depart with 12-16 dogs, must finish with at least 6 dogs on the tow line.
Ways to Get Involved
The volunteers are an eclectic group. A good percentage of people take 2-3 weeks off work to assist year after year – from pilots to veterinarians to cooks to timekeepers. You can work in Anchorage or volunteer for one of the remote checkpoints (with limited to no facilities). Many locals who work take evening or weekend shifts as their schedule allows, and others fly in from all over the world.
I don’t foresee volunteering for the entire race as I did in 2015 (in communications), but it would be fun to get involved for part of it in future years. I’ll definitely continue to support the cause in indirect ways, such as buying a raffle ticket for a Dodge Ram truck.
Teacher on the Trail
Whether you’re a teacher or want to share the experience with your own kids, the teacher on the trail posts educational plans and videos for the classroom.
You can bid to ride the first 11 miles in the musher’s basket for the ceremonial start. (The 11 miles count toward the race mileage, but it’s not timed.) Check out the eclectic group of people drawn to this event.
“Chase the Race” Tour
If you don’t want to volunteer but still want a front row seat, you can coordinate with Rust’s to fly over the Iditarod trail, stop at a 7th checkpoint at Rainy Pass and get a behind the scenes view of the race.
Follow the race online to learn about the adventures of the next Iditarod!
Would you like to visit Alaska? What city/activity interests you most?