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Monday, April 11, 2016

I is for Iditarod

If you’ve lived in Alaska you know what this is—sled dog races.  This takes place every February.  The race runs from Anchorage to Nome–1150 miles through wilderness in the ice and snow.  This is some of the roughest and most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. The mushers and their dog teams must cross rugged mountains, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coastline.

Between 50 and 100 teams compete in the race that started in 1973.  Each team must start with sixteen dogs and finish with at least six.  These mushers come from all walks of life, can be men and/or women and each person has their own reason why they’re competing in the race that includes temperatures far below zero, treacherous climbs and long hours of darkness, as well as wind that causes “white-outs.” 

Mushers can spend an entire year getting ready for the race.  Everyone participating has a different tactic, but there are some rules all must abide by.  The requirements state all teams must have an arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, musher food, dog food and boots for each dog’s feet to protect them from the sharp ice.  Lots of training also goes into getting each team ready.

Iditarod means “distant” or “distant place” in the language of the Ingalik and Holikachu, indigenous people of northwestern Alaska. There’s also a city, a river and a trail named Iditarod in that area.  The abandoned city of Iditarod on the Iditarod River is considered the halfway point on the southern route of the dogsled race. 

During the gold rush dogsleds were the only way to deliver mail to remote areas.  After World War II, things changed.  Mail was delivered by snowmobiles or airplane because it was faster.  The dogsled almost disappeared into history.  This would have happened if musher, Joe Redington Sr., hadn’t started the long distance race to keep dogsledding alive.

The starting line can change due to unseasonably warm weather.  Some years it’s moved to Fairbanks, 359 miles north of Anchorage, where it’s considerably colder.

Only northern breeds of dogs are allowed to participate in the race.  These are the Siberian huskies and the Alaskan malamutes because they have the right furry undercoat to travel in Alaska’s frozen winter conditions.  This rule, imposed in 1988, is to protect the dogs that aren’t used to Alaska’s winter.

Moose can be dangerous for the mushers and the dog teams as they’ll charge in certain areas along the trail.  People and dogs are subject to injuries during such attacks.

A Red Lantern award is given to the last team to finish the race.  The winner usually finishes the race in eight to ten days, although it can take up to 32 days to finish.  Can you imagine that?  I would never make a musher. 

At the start of the race the lantern is lit and not put out until the last dog crosses the finish line.  The Red Lantern originated in 1953 at a three-day Fur Rendevous race in Anchorage.  The tradition was passed to the Iditarod race.

People are pretty sick of winter by the time February roles around.  Everyone has “cabin fever” and is anxious for spring to arrive.  When I lived there in the 1970's everyone came out for the winter festival no matter how cold it was. 

The first ever Fur Rendezvous was held February 15-17, 1935.  It featured sports events and a children’s dogsled race downtown on Fourth Street.  There was a bonfire and torchlight parade (remember it's still dark most of the time in Alaska in the winter.)  This festival later expanded to ten days.  In 1946, dog sled races through town were added with people coming from all over to participate.  In 1950, the Blanket Toss, an Alaska native tradition was added.  There were also traditional tribal dances.  Other events include a carnival, a grand parade, outhouse races, snowshoe softball and running of the reindeer.  I remember attending this event and thinking to myself “only in Alaska.”  I was freezing to death, but glad to get outside and go to “something” since there’s little to do in the winter.


  1. I hadn't heard of the Red Lantern; that is a lovely tradition! I think it would be fun to see the races at least one time!


    1. Betty,

      It's all interesting for sure. AK was rather untamed and wild back in the 70's. I hope you like the cold because this is only held in Feb every year. Feb is a very gray month too when the sky blends in with the ground.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.


  2. I have great respect for anyone who can do that.

    1. Liz,

      Me too. I know I never could.

      Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.



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