All About the Iditarod!

Dallas Seavey at 2015 Iditraod finish lineThe 2015 Alaska Iditarod is now over with Dallas Seavey and his team crossing the finish line on March 18th, being declared the winner. Organizers had to re-route more than 600 miles of trail because portions of the original trail were deemed impassable.  The 968 mile race began on March 6th in Fairbanks, Alaska with 78 mushers, each bringing up to 16 dogs to the event, adding up to well over 1000.   Teams (mushers) and spectators came from all over the world to compete in this event.

So what does “Iditarod” mean, and how did this event begin?   The word “Iditarod” comes from the Ingalik indian word  “HaIditarod” which means, “distant place.”  Billed as the greatest sporting event in Alaska, the exact measured distance of the race varies from year to year, but officially the northern route is 1,112 miles long, and the southern route is 1,131 miles long. The length of the race is also officially set at 1,049 miles which honors Alaska's status as the 49th U.S. state.

For years in the remote areas of Alaska, dog teams and sleds played a very important role in local transportation and day-to-day communication and movement of goods and services between the small local native villages that dotted the landscape and continued to do so up until small planes (bush pilots) and snow mobiles, which came to be called, “Iron Dogs” took their place.  The result of modern technology was the loss of dog teams and sleds and the “mushing” lore that went with them.  It was the sad end of an era.

In an attempt to save a piece of Alaska History the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee was formed in the early 60’s with the goal of recognizing Alaska’s centennial – 100 years as a U.S. Territory.  Part of this recognition was to have a sled dog race over the Iditarod Trail, which was first began as a composite of smaller trails established by Alaskan natives and ran from Seward to Nome.  The subsequent discovery of gold in Nome around 1910 popularized the trail, as it brought thousands of people over the trail in search of a fortune.  Others took advantage of this huge influx and established several roadhouses and dog barns along the way.  When the gold petered out after a few years, the trail was all but abandoned and forgotten about until in 1925 there was a diphtheria outbreak in Nome.  Twenty dogsled drivers and teams carried live-saving serum 674 miles in 127 hours that year to reach and save those affected.  Today, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates that remarkable feat.

Dog sled teams were widely used in World War II to patrol and protect the vast wilderness of Western Alaska. 

In 1964, a group was formed, known as the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, whose sole purpose was to commemorate the 1967 100 year anniversary of Alaska being a U.S. Territory.  Out of this committee came a revitalization of the famous Iditarod Trail, through support of a centennial sled dog race.

Initially, much work had to be done to clear the trail.  The Centennial race between Knik and Bit Lake was held in 1967 and again in 1969 over a portion of the actual trail (9 miles).   Total race distance was 56 miles.  After the Centennial races, there was a lag and interest waned.  A small nucleus of people had a vision and never lost hope.  With the help of the U.S. Army in clearing portions of the trail and with the support of the Nome Kennel Club, that vision became a reality in 1973, when a new race was born.  That race was no picnic.  Mushers had to break much of their own trail as they went along and carry all their own supplies.  Race winner that year was Dick Wilmarth.

Two pioneers who did much of the work to save sled dog racing and the sled dog of Alaska, the Alaskan Huskey, were Joe Reddington and Dorothy Page, editor of the Iditarod Annual.

Mushers travel  from checkpoint to checkpoint along the trail, much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago.  Today, musher competition is keen, has big time sponsors and backers and the pace is much faster than in the past.  A good musher with well-trained and excellent conditioned dogs can complete the race in under ten days.

The Iditarod has become so well-known that the best mushers and well known kennels now receive thousands of dollars a year from corporate sponsors.

While the Iditarod has become by far Alaska’s best-known sporting event, there are a dozen other major races around the state every winter, such as the grueling thousand-mile Yukon Quest, the Kobuk 440, the Kusko 300, the Klondike 300, and the Copper Basin 300.

In a revival of age-old tradition, some entire villages and towns in rural Alaska become swept up in the frenzy of sled dog racing.

Sled dog racing has also caught on, to a lesser degree in the Lower 48, as well as in Canada, Europe and Russia.  Mushers from more than a dozen foreign countries have run the Iditarod, and Alaskan mushers routinely travel to races such as the John Beargrease in Minnesota, the Big Sky in Montana, the UP 200 in Michigan, and the Alpirod in Europe. A number of Alaskan mushers have even run races in the Russian Far East.

The Winter Olympics are considering adding sled dog racing as an event and several sled dog races were held in Norway in conjunction with the 1994 games.

So, what does it take to compete in a race such as the Iditarod?

Well, it is certainly not an event one can enter into lightly.  It takes months and months of preparation.  To begin with, it takes a team of very special dogs and in order to prepare the dogs for this event, they have to be carefully evaluated and selected based upon their physical and mental abilities. For a race as grueling as the Iditarod, there is a team of specialized veterinarians in place to closely monitor and tend to the needs of competing dogs. The race’s vet team is made up entirely of volunteers who fall into three categories: consultants, “drop dog” vets and trail vets. Drop dog vets are stationed at checkpoints and evaluate dogs who have been removed from a team, while 40 to 45 trail vets, the majority of whom are volunteers, are stationed at various checkpoints along the path to do routine checks on the participating dogs. Overall, these veterinarians perform thousands of routine checkups on the dogs to ensure their health and wellbeing during the duration of the race.

The first week in December prior to the March race, those new to racing take a course on dog careissues.  In February, all dogs to be entered undergo a detailed physical exam, including an ECG and bloodwork.  They are also microchipped and careful records are kept on all findings.  Each dog must be current on all vaccinations and will undergo another physical exam two weeks before the race.

All veterinary staff personnel are required to attend a training seminar sponsored by the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association the week prior to the race.  Topics generally covered include the latest advances in sled dog nutrition, conditioning, diseases, injuries, surgery, and rehabilitation. One of the amazing secrets to successful endurance lies in their ability to re-program their bodies’ responses to stress after only one day of competition.  Also, during race season, the dogs, which average about 55 lbs. will consume up to 10-12,000 calories a day.  Their specialized diet consists of 60-70% fat and comes in the form of a watery doggie stew.  Because sled dogs require so many calories per day, especially in the winter, they normally eat a few small meals throughout the day instead of eating all of their food in one or two sittings.

One might think dogs are prone to frostbite and hypothermia.  Not so with Siberian Huskies.  Their coats and circulatory systems are designed for cold weather.  They train in weather that is 30° to 50° below zero.  There is actually a greater fear of overheating.  Dogs cannot sweat and through their skin like people do.  They can only get rid of heat  through their paws.  They burn a tremendous amount of calories and generate a lot of heat during the course of the race.  For dogs used to working at minus zero temperatures, 20° to 30 ° above zero can be too warm.  Mushers are trained to watch carefully for signs of overheating.  Overheating can cause dehydration and pneumonia.  Other common issues dogs face are fatigue, diarrhea ulcers, and aches and pains similar to those found in human marathoners.

As a precaution, mushers carry a dog team diary to record the condition of each dog, and vets must sign off on the diary at every checkpoint before the team can move on.

Equipment

Dog booties and an ax are two of the most important pieces of equipment mushers carry.  The ax is used to cut up frozen food and to cut away trail obstacles as well as a handy tool for other uses as needed.  Dog booties are an absolute must.  They protect the dogs feet, preventing damage.  This sporting event is not for the faint of heart and visiting Alaska to watch the start is an experience never to be forgotten.

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