Iditarod

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The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, usually called the "Iditarod" and known as the "Last Great Race", is an annual dog sled race in Alaska, where mushers and teams of dogs cover more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in less than two weeks, frequently through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, and sub-zero weather and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach −100° F (−75° C). The trail runs through the U.S. state of Alaska, from the city of Anchorage in the southeast, 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 the northwest. The teams cross a harsh but starkly beautiful 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 Athapaskan and Inuit settlements. The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state, and has many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing, most famously the diphtheria serum run of 1925 which saved the children of Nome from the "black death". The race is also associated with the spirit of "America's Last Frontier", including the traits of perseverance, testing one's own limits, and an adventuresome spirit.

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The race is the most popular sporting event in the state, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are treated as 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 Norwegian Robert Sørlie, who became the first international winner in 2003. The Iditarod became famous outside the state largely because of media attention directed at Libby Riddles, a longshot who became the first woman to win the race in 1985; and then at Susan Butcher, who became the second woman to win the race in 1986, and went on to dominate the race for half a decade. Print and television journalists and crowds of spectators attend the start at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and D Street in Anchorage, and in smaller numbers at the checkpoints along the trail. On the negative side, the death of more than a dozen dogs on the trail during the first race in 1973 was widely criticized by animal rights groups. Despite vast improvements in dog care, deaths still occur, and a small but vocal group of activists continue to speak out against the race.

When the Iditarod began (1973), it was much different from what it is today. When it began, it wasn't so much a "race" as an "event" to commemorate the tradition of dog mushing, where serious mushers got together to test themselves and their dogs. Then came the money, specifically the money that accompanies network TV coverage. With the money, came the huge dog lots breeding the scrawny (but fast) dogs that we see today. Many who are familiar with the history of the Iditarod look back with nostalgia on the early days, when the mushers had smaller teams with bigger dogs, and the emphasis was not on winning the race; the emphasis was on completing the task.


History

Portions of the Iditarod Trail were used by the Native American Inuit and Athapaskans 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 then 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, priests, 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 (23-48 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 race in 1915, 1916, and 1917, before the race was discontinued in 1918 during World War I.

File:Statue of Balto in Anchorage.jpg
Statue in Anchorage of Balto, the lead sled dog during the final stretch of the serum run

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 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 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 Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto, arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 AM just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected at 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 further than any other team.

The Iditarod was the brainchild of Dorothy G. Page (the "Mother of the Iditarod"), who wanted to sponsor a sled dog race to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. With the support of Joe Redington, Senior (the "Father of the Iditarod"), the first Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race was held in 1967 and covered 25 miles (40 km) near Anchorage. The purse of USD $25,000 attracted a field of 58 racers including the winner, Isaac Okleasik. The next race in 1968 was canceled due to lack of snow, and the small $1,000 purse in 1969 only drew 12 mushers.

Redington was the impetus behind extending the race more than 1,000 miles along the historic route to Nome, and a major fund raising campaign which raised a purse of $51,000. The first true Iditarod was held in 1973, and attracted a field 34 mushers, 22 of whom completed the race. 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 AAS, it has also been deliberately associated with other symbols from the history of Alaska, including Leonhard Seppala, the gold rush, and most importantly the 1925 serum run, to which it is now inseparately connected.

File:Iditarod Trail Seward 500.jpg
Start of the Iditarod National Historic Trail in Seward

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. Iditarod may be derived from the Athabaskan haiditarod, meaning "far distant place".

The main route of the Iditarod trail extends 938 miles (1,500 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 (3,945 km). Except for the start in Anchorage, the modern race follows parts of the historic trail.

Route

The route of the race was chosen to test the mettle of the sled dogs and their drivers ("mushers"), and passes through largely unpopulated tundra. 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 Ptarmidgan 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 (1820 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.

Checkpoints

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. Mushers can also drop injured or exhausted dogs at most checkpoints, where they are flown to a veterinary station. Each team is required to stop for 6 hours at White Mountain to rest their dogs, and to spend at least 24 hours at one other checkpoint, frequently choosing Rohn.

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.

Ceremonial start

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

The race starts the first Saturday in March, at the first checkpoint on Fourth Avenue, in downtown Anchorage. 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. Hundreds of dogs are unloaded from "dog boxes", honeycomb-like compartments in the back of a truck, and marked with identifying paint. Race officials, dog handlers, veterinarians, and journalists mob the mushers in staging area for last minute interviews and checkups. At 8:30AM AST, the crowds of spectators are sent behind the slatwood barriers.

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 10AM 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 2 minute intervals. The start order is determined by a lottery during a banquet held two days prior.

In addition to the normal load, each team also carries two passengers. One is a family member or friend, and the other is an "Idita-Rider". The Idita-Riders are chosen by an auction in January, which 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.

The additional riders also help curb the enthusiasm of the dogs. This is the most trying portion of the race for many dogs, who are unused to the noise and flashing cameras of city crowds; or the unusual terrain including tunnels, bridges, and sharp corners. Teams occasionally come to a complete stop, or run into the crowds. In 1979, Gayle Nienhueser fell and sprained a wrist, and in 1985 there was a three-sled pileup around a sharp curve. To compensate, some mushers use a lead dog more accustomed to the chaos during this first leg. But despite the problems, Anchorage is the largest city situated close to the Historic Iditarod Trail, and provides access to the facilities of a full city, including press coverage.

The mushers then continue through the city streets, where police halt traffic at intersections to allow them to pass. They cover 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 2 to 3 hours until they reach Eagle River, 20 miles (30 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 (50 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.

Restart

(ITC, Southern & Northern)</small>
Restart
Wasilla to Knik 14 mi (23 km)
Knik to Yetna 52 mi (84 km)
Yetna 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 P.M. AST. Prior to 2004, the race was restarted at 10 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 is the headquarters of the Iditarod Trail Committee, in Wasilla, but warm weather and poor trail conditions can push the restart further north to Willow Lake, and in 2003 it was bumped 300 miles (500 km) north to Fairbanks. The mushers depart, separated by the same intervals as their arrival at the second checkpoint. While not as chaotic as the ceremonial start in Anchorage, thousands of spectators also mob the restart.

The first 100 miles (160 km) from Eagle River through the checkpoints at Knik, and Yetna Station, to Skwentna are known as "moose alley", and are one of the most hazardous stretches of the trail. 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 large deer use pre-existing trails, and stubbornly refuse to move, forcing mushers to make a wide half-circle through the deep snow before returning to the trail. Moose kill more people each year than bears, and have been known to attack when starving, or when they feel threatened.

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. It killed two dogs and seriously injured six more in the twenty minutes before Duane "Dewey" Halverson arrived and shot it. In 1982, Dick Mackey, Warner Vent, Jerry Austin, and their teams were driven into the forest by a charging moose, though there were no deaths.

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 aircraft, and dozens of planes land on the airstrip or on the Skwetna 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. 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. 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 Hell's Gate, because of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.

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 (975 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 Fahrenheit (-45C), and the 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) winds caused the windchill to drop to -130F (-90C). 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 five miles (8 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[1].

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 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 (70 km) from Rohn, the path leaves the river and passes into the Farewell Burn. In 1976, a wildfire turned 360,000 acres (1,500 km) of spruce into blackened badland of burnt timber. Fallen trees, and falling through clumps of sedge or grass which balloon out into a canopy two feet (600 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 Athapaskan 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.

Divided path

(ITC, Northern)</small>
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; and 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).

On even years, 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 Athapaskan village.

(ITC, Southern)</small>
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

On odd years, 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 Athapaskan 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 (-75 °C). A greater hazard is the uniformity of this long stretch: Suffering from sleep deprivation, many mushers report hallucinations (Sherwonit, 1991).

(ITC, Southern & Northern)</small>
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 Athapaskan villages in the Interior, and the Inuit settlements on the coast of the Bering Sea. The "Kaltag Portage" runs through a 1,000 feet (300 m) pass down to the Inuit town of Unalakleet, on the shore of the Bering Sea.

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.

All teams must rest their dogs for at least six 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.

File:IditarodEnd.jpg
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, past a saloon once owned by Wyatt Earp, and down the fenced-off 50 yard end stretch. The city's fire siren is sounded as each musher crosses 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.

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. Only a handful of professionals make their living running large kennels; most 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. In 1991, the combined cost of the entry fee, dog maintenance, and transportation was estimated at between USD $10,000 and $25,000. In comparison, only the top three finishers won more than $25,000, and only the top ten won more than $10,000. (Sherwonit, 1991) <!-- needs to be updated with more current numbers -->

"Musher" is derived from the French marche, meaning "to march", and originated among the French fur trappers in Alaska. The term has been used to mean "move out" by foot or snowshoes since the middle of the 19th century. Applying it to dogs is a 20th century coinage; prior to that time the term was "dog driver" or "dog puncher". "Mush" is rarely used by modern teams, having been replaced by "hike" or "let's go".

Dogs

File:Husky L.jpg
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 mostly importantly the desire to run. Dogs bred for marathon races weight from 45 to 55 pounds (20-25 kg), and those bred for sprinting weigh 5 to 10 pounds (2-5 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°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 the dogs heart, hydration, appetite, attitude, weight, lungs, and joints; at most of the checkpoints, and look for signs of feet and shoulder injuries, respiration problems, dehydration, diarrhea, and exhaustion. Mushers are not allow to administer drugs that mask the signs of injury, including stimulants, muscle relaxants, sedatives, anti-inflammatories, and anabolic steroids. As of 2005, no musher has been banned for drug abuse[2].

Each team is composed of seven to sixteen dogs, and no more may be added during the race. At least five dogs must be in harness when on the trail. Mushers keep a dog diary on the trail, and have it signed by a veterinarian at each checkpoint. Dogs that become exhausted or injured are often carried in the sled's "basket" to the next "dog-drop" site, where they are transported by the volunteer Iditarod Air Force to the veterinary station at Eagle River. The "dog procedures" bar cruel and inhumane treatment. Five mushers were disqualified between 1973 and 1991 when signs of mistreatment were uncovered, and one was permanently banned for a repeated pattern of physical abuse.

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. Dogs pull carts, or ATVs as part of their training when there is not enough snow on the ground.

In 1974, between 16 and 30 dogs died on the trail from pneumonia and dehydration. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Governor William A. Egan, and the public were outraged, so the dog procedures were established in 1975, which reduced the number of fatalities to two. In 2005, four dogs died out of the 1264 dogs entered.

The event is still criticized by animal rights activists because dogs have died and been injured during the race. The practice of tethering dogs on short chains, which is commonly used by mushers at checkpoints and dog drops, is also criticized. The most vocal critic is the Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org. The organization gathers highlights some details of the Iditarod's history of dog deaths, illnesses and injuries, and explains some of the issues that cause them. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose spokesperson Jennifer O'Connor says: "We're totally opposed to the race for the cruelty issues associated with it,"[3] while the ASPCA is more neutral: "General concerns arise whenever intense competition results in dogs being pushed beyond their endurance or capabilities," according to Vice President Stephen Zawistowski[4]. The Humane Society of the United States opposes the Iditarod for the reasons stated on http://www.hsus.org/pets/issues_affecting_our_pets/facts_about_the_iditarod.html. Dr. Paula Kislak, President of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, has been very critical of the care the dogs receive.

Records and awards

Dick Wilmarth won the first race in 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, and Martin Buser are the only 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 is the second musher to win four races, and the only musher to place in either first or second place for five straight years.

Doug Swigley of Montana was the first non-Alaskan to win the race, in 1995. While mushers from 14 countries have competed in Iditarod races, the 2003 and 2005 wins by the Norwegian Robert Sørlie are the only times a non-American has won the race.

The "Golden Harness" is given to the lead dog or dogs of the winning team. 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. All mushers who finish receive at least $1049. The size of the purse determines how many mushers receive additional cash prizes. The first place winner also receives a new pickup truck.

List of Iditarod winners

[5]</small>
Year Musher Lead dog(s) Time (h:min:s)
1973 25px Dick Wilmarth Hotfoot 20 days, 00:49:41
1974 25px Carl Huntington Nugget 20 days, 15:02:07
1975 25px Emmitt Peters Nugget & Digger 14 days, 14:43:45
1976 25px Gerald Riley Puppy & Sugar 18 days, 22:58:17
1977 25px Rick Swenson Andy & Old Buddy 16 days, 16:27:13
1978 25px Dick Mackey Skipper & Shrew 14 days, 18:52:24
1979 25px Rick Swenson Andy & Old Buddy 15 days, 10:37:47
1980 25px Joe May Wilbur & Cora Gray 14 days, 07:11:51
1981 25px Rick Swenson Andy & Slick 12 days, 08:45:02
1982 25px Rick Swenson Andy 16 days, 04:40:10
1983 25px Rick Mackey Preacher & Jody 12 days, 14:10:44
1984 25px Dean Osmar Red & Bullet 12 days, 15:07:33
1985 25px Libby Riddles Axle & Dugan 18 days, 00:20:17
1986 25px Susan Butcher Granite & Mattie 11 days, 15:06:00
1987 25px Susan Butcher Granite & Mattie 11 days, 02:05:13
1988 25px Susan Butcher Granite & Tolstoi 11 days, 11:41:40
1989 25px Joe Runyan Rambo & Ferlin the Husky 11 days, 05:24:34
1990 25px Susan Butcher Sluggo & Lightning 11 days, 01:53:23
1991 25px Rick Swenson Goose 12 days, 16:34:39
1992 25px Martin Buser Tyrone & D2 10 days, 19:17:15
1993 25px Jeff King Herbie & Kitty 10 days, 15:38:15
1994 25px Martin Buser D2 & Dave 10 days, 13:05:39
1995 25px Doug Swingley Vic & Elmer 10 days, 13:02:39
1996 25px Jeff King Jake & Booster 9 days, 05:43:13
1997 25px Martin Buser Blondie & Fearless 9 days, 08:30:45
1998 25px Jeff King Red & Jenna 9 days, 05:52:26
1999 25px Doug Swingley Stormy, Cola & Elmer 9 days, 14:31:07
2000 25px Doug Swingley Stormy & Cola 9 days, 00:58:06
2001 25px Doug Swingley Stormy & Pepi 9 days, 19:55:50
2002 25px Martin Buser Bronson 8 days, 22:46:02
2003 25px Robert Sørlie Tipp 9 days, 15:47:36
2004 25px Mitch Seavey Zebra 9 days, 12:20:22
2005 25px Robert Sørlie Sox & Blue 9 days, 18:39:31

References

See also

External links

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