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2012 Iditarod Preview

February 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Dog Activities and Training

Ceremonial start of the Iditarod.

This is a busy time in the dog world.  We’re right smack in the middle between the Westminstershow and the upcoming Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  Here’s a preview of the race, which starts on the first Saturday in March, the 3rd.

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod Trail had been used by Native Alaskans for hundreds of years before the Gold Rush inNome in 1898, but it became an important supply link between Nome and the rest of the world when miners began to populate the state.  From October to June, the northern ports of Alaska were too icy to allow steamships to travel freely, so the ability of dog sleds to traverse over great distances provided people with a way to survive the long, dark winters.

Mushing was also an immensely popular sport.  The All-Alaska Sweepstakes was started in 1908 by Allan Alexander Allan, running 408 miles roundtrip from Nome to Candle, and was responsible for the introduction of Siberian Huskies into Alaska in 1910.  Huskies soon began to replace the Alaskan Malamute and the various mongrels which had been used in the past.  The annual race was discontinued at the start of World War I.

However, in 1925, the city of Nome experienced a diphtheria epidemic, and the necessary anti-toxin was in Anchorage, more than 1,000 miles away.  For the first 300 miles, the serum was transported by train from Anchorage to Nenana.  The “Great Race of Mercy” continued as a relay of twenty mushers and over 100 dogs who brought the serum across the frozen tundra.  Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen, with his lead dog Balto, arrived in Nome with the anti-toxin on February 2nd, five and a half days after the life-saving serum had left Nenana.

Although Kaasen and Balto are the folk heroes of the race, most mushers know that Leonhard Seppala and Togo were the true heroes, crossing the longest and most hazardous part of the route.  To commemorate their bravery, Dorothy G. Page and Joe Redington Sr. organized a race in 1967, covering just 25 miles of the original Iditarod Trail near Anchorage.  Fifty-eight racers competed for a prize purse of $25,000.

The following year, there was not enough snow to hold a race, and in 1969, the small prize purse of $1,000 only attracted 12 mushers.  The idea of a race following the Iditarod trail died a natural death.  It was resurrected just four years later, after more than a year of planning by Redington and school teachers Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson.  The 1973 race was the first one which would be recognizable as a modern Iditarod Trail Race, running over 1,000 miles.  Organizers were soon able to attract both mushers and sponsors, and the race has grown to be the largest sporting event in the state of Alaska.

The Ceremonial Start

There is much history and tradition steeped in the official start of the race, even though it has no impact on the eventual outcome.  A five-block section of Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage is barricaded, and snow is shipped in by truck to cover the route from Anchorage to the first checkpoint.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, an honorary musher chosen for his or her contribution to the dog-sledding world starts out at 10:00 am Alaskan Standard Time.  Start times are staggered two minutes apart, and each racer is given a choice of start times, taking turns picking in the order of registration.

Because this part of the race does not count toward the mushers’ eventual scored time, the mushers are free to relax as they travel through downtown Anchorage, waving to the crowds of people gathered to see them off.  It’s one of the few places where spectators can watch the race.

Saturday night is the last night of rest for the teams.  Once the race begins again on Sunday, the only down time is during the mandatory rest periods.  Each musher can choose which checkpoint to use for his major rest break.  The only requirement is that each team take on 24-hour rest break at some point.  There are also two 8-hour rest breaks.  For these breaks, a limited number of check points may be used, ensuring that the breaks are spread out over the course of the race.

On Sunday, the real work begins.  Teams leave the checkpoint in Willow in the same order in which they arrived, starting at 2:00 pm and departing two minutes apart.  The “starting differential” (e.g. the time between when the first team leaves and when each subsequent team leaves) is made up after the mandatory 24-hour rest stop.

For example, if your team was sixth in line to leave, your departure time would be 2:12 pm.  The last team to leave might go at 3:12 pm.  After the 24-hour rest period, the last starting team gets to leave as soon as their 24-hours are up.  You, on the other hand would have to wait an additional hour after your 24 hours, in order to make up for the starting differential.   Similarly, the first team to have  left Willow would stay at the checkpoint where they took their long  rest for 25 hours and 12 minutes to make up their starting differential. 

The Iditarod Route 

The distance everyone associates with the race is 1,049 miles, which is really just a symbolic figure rather than the actual distance.  The “1,0” stands for the fact that the race has always been over 1,000 miles until this year, and the “49” symbolizes Alaska’s being the 49th state.  However, due to trail conditions, weather, and other factors, the actual length of the race varies from year to year.

The trail between Anchorage and Ophir runs for about 444 miles, then splits into two routes (northern and southern), which rejoin at Kaltag.  From there, the united trail runs another 441 miles to Nome.  For the first four years, only the northern route was used, with the southern route being added in 1977 to include more small villages in the excitement and economic boost of the race.  As it happens, the actual town ofIditarodis along the southern route.

Source: Iditarod.com

This year, as it does in every even-numbered year, the race follows the northern route from Anchorage to Nome.  However, the course has been shortened to 975 miles this year by a few changes to the Ceremonial and restart locations.

The Ceremonial Start on Saturday, March 3rd will be in downtown Anchorage, as always, but it will end this time 11 miles later at the Campbell Airstrip rather than at Eagle River.  The mushers will then move their dogs and equipment by truck to Willow, rather than Wasilla, for the restart on March 4th.  (I have no information on whether this has anything to do with Wasilla’s claim to fame, the Palin family, or not.)

From Willow, the route is basically the same as always, allowing for trail conditions.  During the first 100 miles of the route, the major hazard is moose!  In past years, teams have been run off the trail, and dogs have been seriously injured by the huge animals who wander through “moose alley.”

Once the route reaches Skwentna, the moose are generally off the trail, but the terrain takes a major turn for the worse.  Along Happy River Gorge, mushers must balance precariously along the side of a thickly wooded incline.  The trail continues to climb into the mountains, where blizzard conditions often erase trail markers.  At one point, the trail drops 1,000 feet in elevation over the course of just five miles just before arriving in Rohn.

Leaving Rohn, the trail goes through the Farewell Burn, site of a massive 1976 wildfire that left fallen timbers and debris hazards which still persist.  The largest checkpoint on the interior section of the route is at McGrath, population 401.

The two routes diverge at Ophir, the northern route passing through Cripple, Ruby,Galena, and Nulato; the southern route through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, andEagle Island.  The routes then join together again at Kaltag.

The so-called “last dash” takes the mushers and their dogs along the northern shores of the Bering Sea through Unalakleet, Koyuk, Golovin, and the town of Safety.  The official finish line is the famous burled arch in Nome, officially known as the Red “Fox”Olson Trail Monument.  A widow’s lamp hanging from the arch is not extinguished until the last racer crosses the finish line, usually less than 10 days after the start of the race.

The Mushers

Due to the hazards and extreme conditions experienced along the trail, only mushers who have completed at least three smaller races can participate in the Iditarod.  Some are professional mushers, making their living by racing, breeding, and selling sled dogs.  Others have regular jobs and take a break from them to compete.  Check out this year’s musher profiles on the official Iditarod website.

End of the Iditarod sled dog race

Sign marking the end of the Iditarod race.

The Dogs

According to the official rules,  each team starts the race with at least 12 and no more than 16 dogs.  At least 6 dogs must be on the towline when the sled crosses the finish line.  Treatment of the dogs during this physically grueling race has become a point of contention for some.  Race officials have included rules meant to protect the dogs, but scarcely a year goes by that one of the dogs isn’t maimed or killed along the route.

The rules state that dogs must be maintained in good condition, but cannot be brought into shelters except for medical examination or treatment.  Any action or inaction which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog is expressly forbidden, and a dog who is noted to be in critical condition can cause the musher to be held at a checkpoint for up to eight hours while an investigation is completed.

Dogs are examined both prior to and after the race, during which time their general health is evaluated and they are checked for drugs.  Vaccinations must be up-to-date, and micro-chips are inserted to track the dogs throughout the race.

A dog who dies during the race must be carried to a checkpoint so that the cause of death can be determined.  If the dog is determined to have died from cruel, inhumane, or abusive treatment, the musher is disqualified from the race.

Check out pictures of people and dogs getting prepared for this year’s race.

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