Travel by dogsled is something that most of us only witness in movies, however every year in Anchorage, Alaska, a race of epic proportions occurs. The Iditarod began in 1973 as a way to commemorate the mushers and their dog sled teams that traveled the snowy ground during a Diphtheria outbreak in 1925. The land was impassible by any other means, so medication had to be brought from Anchorage to Nome via dog sled.
Photo by bruceandletty
The Race: The extraordinary route between the two towns stretches a vast 1150 miles, over mountains, rivers, through forests and across the tundra. The mushers and their teams of 12-16 dogs (we’ll talk more about the dogs, of course!) complete the race in between 10-17 days! When you figure that the sled weighs about 40-50 lbs and it is carrying about 100 lbs of supplies, *plus* the weight of the human musher, that is an impressive figure! Each musher comes up with their own strategy about how to take on the Iditarod, some prefer to travel at night, while others mush their teams during the day. Both men and women compete in the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first woman to ever win the race in 1985 and Susan Butcher was the first woman to ever place in the top 10 (and went on to win 4 times).
The Dogs: The teams of dogs are mostly made up of Alaskan Huskies. This is a mixed breed dog that is a descendent of Northern sled dogs used by the natives of the land. Their background can be traced to domesticated wolves and wild dogs that then were bred with a variety of dogs that miners and trappers brought with them to the region. While those offspring didn’t thrive as sled dogs, when they bred back to the native sled dogs, the result was an excellent mixed breed dog that became known as the Alaskan Husky. There is a great amount of variety in appearance in these dogs as mushers have bred in other breeds to obtain specific traits that they desire (hounds and collies to name a few). While some mushers may use Siberian Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes, they aren’t as good at pulling as the Alaskan Huskies. The breed is full of stamina and hybrid vigor!
Photo by togosleddog
Before the race each of the dogs undergoes a full check-up including blood work and an ECG (Echocardiogram). They must be up to date on their vaccines and dewormed 14 days before the race. Mushers must carry a pair of boots for each dog to wear to protect their pads from the damage that could be caused by the snow and ice.
Photo by Travis S.
These dogs are truly canine athletes and they need lots of calories to keep them going! Mushers usually feed their dogs a combination of kibble and raw meats (horse, beef, fish and even seal and moose!) multiple times a day to give them enough energy to continue to race. If a dog is injured during the race it can be taken out of the competition. This is called “dropping a dog” in Iditarod lingo. If a dog is dropped it is taken to a checkpoint where it is then airlifted back to Anchorage. There it gets whatever medical treatment it needs and then is put into the care of inmates at the Eagle River Correctional Center. The dog stays there until the musher or someone acquainted with the team comes to fetch the dog.
Photo by no surprises
I’ve been pretty fascinated with the idea of dog sledding since I got to experience it firsthand on a vacation in Lake Placid, NY. However it was *nothing* like the Iditarod! It was a slowish trip around a frozen lake, pulled by an enthusiastic team of Siberian Huskies. For more information on the race, check out the Iditarod Homepage.