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Learn About The Iditarod Race And Dog Mushing In Alaska

By: Diane Gray

In Alaska, the official state sport is dog sled racing. Alaskans have always appreciated the reliability and historic value of the old ways of dog sledding. Mechanical transportation such as snow machines and snow mobiles are of course very important to the people of Alaska, but many still keep their own dog teams. Some folks like to keep 2 to 10 sled dogs simply for the joy of recreational mushing, while other keep their teams for working and sled racing competition.

The celebration of Alaskan dog sled racing and mushing racing ranges from the local club meets to the world championships. These races are held throughout the winter months. The mushing races use teams of 7-16 dogs. The teams are not allowed to replace any dog during the race and the cumulative times for the heats determine the winner. Speed races are normally run for about 12-30 miles and last about two to three days. Much excitement accompanies these events. Long distance races are probably the most famous ones of all. They include the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.

These dog teams and their mushers not only compete against the other teams, but they also have to contend with the harsh elements of the Alaskan countryside. Sometimes a musher and his dog team can find themselves in the middle of a dangerous snow storm. If this happen, winning the race may take a backseat and survival in turn becomes a priority. It is reported in the past races that some mushers would sacrifice their chances of winning to help out a fellow musher and his dogs that unfortunately got stranded in the killer storm and needed help. There are other perils along the trail however. Moose will attack the dogs, and straying off course can both become problems. Also, an illness of the musher or his dogs is possible, and the sheer exhaustion and physical exertion of the race can certainly take its toll.

Of all the dog sled races, the Iditarod race probably gets the most national press and is the most known by Americans and people from all over the world. It follows the old mail route which started in Knik, just north of Anchorage and continued northwest to finish in Nome. This old mail route was blazed in 1910. The modern Iditarod race runs about 1,100 miles and crosses two mountain ranges. It also follows the Yukon River for about 150 miles and runs through several villages. The trail even crosses the pack ice on Norton Sound! As you can imagine, this race is truly a test of physical and mental strength and determination! With all of the obstacles that a musher and his dogs must face and overcome, you can imagine the thrill and excitement of the winner and all of the other teams who ran and/or finished this historic race!One of the most famous runs of all on this old mail trail took place in 1925 when Leonhard Seppala and his dog team brought thousands of precious units of the life-saving Diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska where an epidemic broke out. Nowadays, snowmobiles and helicopters replace the dog sled for this job, but at that time, the brash and brave lifesaving run by Seppala was a godsend to the distressed people of Nome.

The Iditarod race was conceived and organized in 1967 by Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Page of Wasilla, Alaska. The first races only covered 56 miles, but then in 1973 it was lengthened to today's 1,100 miles. In 1973, the Iditarod race started in Anchorage on March 3rd. It ended on April 3rd in Nome. This race has been run every year since then. Several years later, Congress designated the Iditarod race as a National Historic Trail in 1976. Dog mushing and the Iditarod race in Alaska bring a romantic notion in people's minds about the old ways of survival and transportation in the far north. It is reassuring to know that dog mushers and their wonderful and brave dog teams are still running the trails today. The special reminder of this tradition is the Iditarod race, which forged its own place in American history.

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