On this first weekend in March, a culturally and historically rooted sporting event takes off for its 50th anniversary in Cantwell, Alaska, as almost 50 mushers and their more than 650 dogs embark on a weeklong quest for Nome in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The race began as the brainchild of Joe Redington, Sr., while he was working in a Unalakleet, Alaska fish hatchery. As the era of airplanes and snowmachines dawned in the state, the long run of dog mushing appeared to be coming to an end. He envisioned that an epic, long-distance race like the Iditarod would reinvigorate the use of sled dogs. In addition, he wanted to preserve the historic Iditarod Trail, an early lifeline connecting villages across vast expanses of roadless Alaska.
Redington did both of those, and more. The Iditarod was the first race of its kind and it established Alaska as the mecca of long-distance dog racing. It is a testament to fortitude and resourcefulness, a singular accomplishment for any who complete its rigors. While there are now other dog sled races across the world, the Iditarod remains the pinnacle, the dreamed-of and worked-for accomplishment for emerging mushers, the indication that they are serious in their pursuit of the sport.
The Roots of the Route, and the Race
In Alaska, there is rural and there is off-the-road-system Bush village rural. The Iditarod traverses the latter. It follows a winding historic trail tracing back to 1910, when as a freight and mail route it connected booming mining towns across interior Alaska. Supported by roadhouses spaced a day’s travel apart, freight mushers drove massive sleds loaded with supplies weighing over half a ton.
“The modus operandi of transportation was sled dogs for years and years and [that] was how especially rural communities could not only survive but thrive,” said Rob Urbach, CEO of Iditarod. “The trail was established to travel from village to village.”
To recreate the route, Redington and numerous volunteers painstakingly unearthed the original trail from Seward to Nome. It was overgrown from disuse and required chopping trees and finding buried markers. While he never won the race he worked so hard to establish, Redington finished it 19 times, including his last run in 1997 when he was 80 years old.
While the historic trail was the original impetus for the race, Iditarod has since come to embody much of the mushing history of the state. It recognizes the Native Alaskans who utilized dogs long before the full trail was established. It commemorates the famous life-saving 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome, a 700-mile trek completed by 20 mushers in six days through blizzard conditions. It remembers the Eskimo Scouts, mushers who patrolled the Pacific front of western Alaska during World War II.
In fifty years, the race has had some memorable moments. The 1978 race was the closest finish ever, when after more than 14 days Dick Mackey finished one second — one dog nose — ahead of Rick Swenson. Several champions, beginning with Rick Mackey in 1983, are second-generation winners following in their fathers’ footsteps. In 1995, Doug Swingley became the first non-Alaskan winner.
The essence of the race is still old-school. The mandatory gear list still includes an ax, a pair of snowshoes, and two dog booties for each dog paw. It remains focused on the mushers, their dogs, and their ability to overcome adversity.
But some things have changed. It has gotten faster: the 1973 winning time was just over 20 days, while the 2021 champion finished in less than eight days. Dogs in the Iditarod are now some of the most studied in the world. Veterinarians perform more than 10,000 examinations before and during each race, and the lessons learned on the trail are incorporated into dog care and nutrition for pets. And the ability to engage with it is cutting-edge. Each musher carries a GPS and can be tracked in real time on the Iditarod website. With drone and aircraft capabilities, teams can camp out alone in the wilderness, watched by millions of fans around the world.
For Mushers, a “Magical Experience”
To finish the Iditarod is to join an elite group of athletes. One of those is Dave Wolfe who was a 19-year-old racer in 1983. Wolfe grew up around dogs and mushing and began dreaming of racing the Iditarod in 1979. As he puts it, many rookie mushers have an “awful lot of gumption and an underlying drive.”
One of the things driving him was diabetes. The race was a way to prove to himself he wasn’t going to be limited by the disease. To stay healthy, he consulted with a sports medicine physician. One of his diabetes hacks was to sew pockets into his huge outer coat to hold juice, crucial for staying hydrated and regulating his blood sugar level.
Wolfe took a gap year after high school in 1982 and gathered a team of 16 dogs. His first challenge was packing everything — dogs, sled, supplies, food — six miles to his off-road, off-grid training cabin. The snow was four feet deep and he had to keep a hole open in the ice-covered lake to provide water for the dogs. Those rigors prepared him for the actual race.
“So many things went miraculously well and having it all come together was amazing,” he said. “Finishing requires overcoming a whole bunch of obstacles no matter what is thrown at you.” He finished 45th.
Kristin Bacon mushed in the 2016, 2017, and 2019 Iditarod races. Her journey to the race began more than a decade earlier, when she worked as a checkpoint volunteer in Skwentna from 2005 to 2015. “It was a lot of hard work but a magical experience,” she said. “I knew I would run the race someday, but I talked myself out of it for a long time.”
Bacon was already an animal person, but through housesitting she realized she loved the routine and rhythm of caring for dogs. She got her first puppies in 2011 and began working towards her first run. “Racing is so consuming, it takes over all things to make it happen,” she said. “You have to have a passion and love a different lifestyle.”
Photos, clockwise from top right: Kristin Bacon with her first litter of puppies in 2011. Bacon and another musher on the home stretch to Nome. Bacon’s sense of accomplishment is evident as she becomes one of the fewer than 1,000 people to have ever completed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Photos by Katherine Joy Photography.
Bacon retains her kennel even though she is not currently racing, sharing her dogs with the community and patients at her pediatric therapy practice. Along with a little mushers class for 4- to 6-year-olds, she offers adaptive mushing experiences centered on dog care and accessible sleds.
“Having dogs is about way more than a race,” she said. “To be fulfilling, I need to share it with my friends and the kids I work with.”
Sled Dogs are the Stars of the Show
The real athletes are the dogs. According to the Iditarod website, the sled dog is, pound for pound, the most powerful draft animal on earth. They can maintain average speeds of 8 to 12 mph for hundreds of miles.
To reach this kind of elite level, dogs begin training as puppies. There are physical and social components of training. Retired dogs, usually around 15 years old, have responsibilities for disciplining the puppies. Handlers keep them training year-round in a variety of conditions.
The synergy and connection between the musher and their dogs is unique. The relationship is different from that with a pet, more of a partnership. Bacon points out the amount of time, love, and energy that goes into every day of training. They go through a lot together: tiredness, sickness, bad weather, overflow. And mushers take care of the dogs first at race checkpoints, preparing their food, checking them over, and bedding them down.
“I can’t fully articulate the depth of the bond I have with my dogs and the level they trust me, but I love animals and am really grateful I get to live this life with them,” said Bacon.
Photos, from left to right: A veterinarian, among the more than 1,500 volunteers who support the Iditarod, checks on Kristin Bacon’s dog Yashi-No-Mi in Grayling. Bacon and her team camp at the Nikolai checkpoint. Her drop bag of supplies with a handwritten note of encouragement leans on her sled. The athletes take a break, with straw beds and blankets provided for the dogs. Photos courtesy of Kristin Bacon.
Wolfe concurs. “Mushers can read the dogs when they need something attended to, and the dogs can tell a lot even by the tone of voice of the musher,” he said. “It is a pretty special relationship.”
Wolfe shares about one dog that had been retired from mushing and was getting cloudy vision and raggedy fur. He decided to try him on his team, and through the training routine the dog’s eyes cleared up and his coat regained its luster. “He was happy to finally run again,” he said. “Sled dogs are born to run; it is in their blood.”
Mushers listen to their dogs. Long-time Iditarod volunteer Toni Reitter remembers photographing the Tustumena 200, an Iditarod qualifying race. It was bitterly cold — her camera lens collected ice half an inch thick. One musher had to quit halfway through the race because his dogs decided they were done. “He was bummed, but the dogs being happy is what gets mushers across the finish line,” she said.
It Takes a Village…
One of the truly unique aspects of the Iditarod, even among other dog sled races, is the cultural experience. The original trail was designed for supply runs and takes the scenic route to Nome, passing through as many villages as possible. The northern route, run in even-numbered years, traverses 23 village checkpoints. Each stop has its own personality and its own traditions.
Ruby, Alaska, population 146, serves as a checkpoint about halfway through the northern route. Established as a gold rush town in 1910, it had nearly 3,000 residents in its heyday. The interior of the state experiences vast temperature ranges and Ruby is no exception; it can drop to 50 degrees below zero in the winter and soar to nearly 100 degrees in the summer.
Ruby is the first spot where mushers see the mighty Yukon River. Per tradition, the first musher to arrive partakes in a gourmet four-course meal prepared by an Anchorage chef, flown in for the day. The temporary dining table in the corner of the rustic community center holds flowers, crystal, and fine china.
One musher invited Billy Honea to dine with him. Honea has lived in Ruby for most of his 67 years. Retired from working on Alaska’s North Slope, he has an intimate history — and present — with the Iditarod. Honea has volunteered for more than 25 years, checking mushers in at the checkpoint and wrangling bales of hay delivered for dog bedding. “It is the highlight of the year,” he said. “Different people come to town: volunteers from out of state and the mushers, many who return every race.”
Honea also has vivid memories of the race in the early days, when villagers like his father, First Traditional Chief of Ruby Don Honea, and 1975 champion and Rookie of the Year Emmitt Peters, also known as “the Yukon Fox,” put Ruby on the mushing map. The two raced a combined total of thirteen times.
The checkpoint in Unalakleet, Alaska, population 689, is a hub of the coastal Norton Sound region. The town hosts consolidated services for about 15 surrounding villages, including a hospital, police, the Bering Strait School District, a fish processing plant, and an air cargo base.
Weather-wise, Unalakleet is windy. Very windy. This February, it broke the record for the longest period of sustained winds greater than 50 mph, lasting over 26 hours. Like most villages, their utilities are community-based and off-grid. Unalakleet Electric harvests the wind with six turbines that supply a quarter of the town’s energy needs, with plans to move towards 100 percent wind energy.
The town’s mayor, 29-year-old Kira Eckenweiler, grew up in Unalakleet and is a musical theater graduate of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She points out there are no large theaters or concerts in town and winter entertainment consists of cross-country skiing, high school basketball (a big deal in Alaskan villages), and culturally-important subsistence activities like hunting and fishing.
Photos, clockwise from top right: Many in Unalakleet continue subsistence activities like berry picking, then enjoy the fruits all year long. One of the benefits of living and mushing in rural Alaska: the Northern Lights, shown here from Unalakleet. Usually by November the ocean and river surrounding Unalakleet are completely frozen, unless the wind pushes the ice out. Here they can be seen from the air in October, before the freeze. Photos courtesy of Kira Eckenweiler.
The Iditarod generates a lot of excitement. Locals know the who’s who of the mushers and their racing stats. People follow their favorite mushers online and take snowmachines down the trail to cheer them on. Adults cook them sourdough pancakes and kids clamor to collect musher autographs.
The village is popular with mushers. It is more than just the way the Unalakleet community embraces them, or the jaw-dropping view of the coast on the way to Shaktoolik. There is also Peace on Earth, the local pizza parlor. Many racers call in their order from the trail for a hot delivery upon arrival.
Eckenweiler sees how the race benefits her town. “The Iditarod brings awareness and showcases all of these small communities in a positive light,” she said. While there are not currently any racing mushers in Ruby or Unalakleet, Eckenweiler has found a modern wave of rural mushers to cheer for. “I love watching mushers from other villages, like Richie Diehl of Aniak and Pete Kaiser of Bethel, the 2019 winner. To see them doing really well is exciting.”
…and a Wild Variety of Volunteers
It takes a lot of people and coordination to support a race of this magnitude. Each year 1,500 volunteers from across the United States make it happen, from pilots to veterinarians to communication specialists and dog handlers. They break trail and install 15,000 trail markers before the race via snowmachine. They deliver food, straw, and supply drops for each musher to every checkpoint. They prepare and serve the ending banquet in Nome and make foot ointment for the dogs at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla.
Almost the entire trail is off the road system and support is organized through four different air bases in Anchorage, McGrath, Unalakleet, and Nome. Iditarod CEO Urbach has experience in organizing sporting events and said, “It is super complex, unlike any in the world of sports logistics.”
One particularly sought-after volunteer position is the Teacher on the Trail. These educators write informational blogs and create curriculum for Iditarod’s extensive education program. During the race they fly between checkpoints to report to students and teachers around the world.
This year’s educator is Jim Deprez, a third grade teacher in Hilliard, Ohio. One of his favorite lessons for engaging students is Mush Madness. Student teams design and build sleds, then compete in a tournament to see which sled travels the farthest without losing any of its load. The lesson incorporates engineering, math, and real-world problem solving in an exciting yet friendly competition.
A Spirit of Solidarity, Unlike Any Other Sport
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has a special spirit. It is reflected in the volunteers who spend their vacations working hard to facilitate the race. It is embodied by the mushers who, while competitors, have an unprecedented level of camaraderie in the world of sports.
While mushers cannot receive outside help, race rules encourage them to aid each other. They do, sometimes even to their own detriment. In 2017, second-place finisher Dallas Seavey dropped his vet book, a mandatory requirement at the finish line, after the last checkpoint. The third-place finisher, Nicolas Petit, picked it up for Seavey and delivered it to him in Nome.
Sometimes that aid has serious life and death consequences. In 1979, racers Joe May and Don Honea were leading the pack. May had a mishap and his team got away. He set off to look for his dogs, forgetting his parka on his sled. Honea stumbled upon his team and rescued May from a snow cave where he was in serious danger of hypothermia.
Perhaps this culture of solidarity arises from the knowledge that completing the race is its own kind of winning. Each finisher, no matter the time of day or night, is heralded by a siren and greeted by a cheering crowd as they pass under the burled arch. The final racer to arrive in Nome each year is given their own prize, the Red Lantern Award. Originally a joke, it has become a cherished tradition, a testament to the grit, perseverance, and dogged determination it takes to be one of the intrepid souls that finishes the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Photos, left to right: David Straub, 2018 Red Lantern winner, proudly holds his award in Nome (Image Credit: Jeff Schultz Photography). The burled arch in downtown Nome marks the end of the Iditarod. All racers, no matter what time of day or night they arrive, are welcomed by the city’s fire siren and a cheering crowd (Image Credit: Katherine Joy Photography).
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race By the Numbers
- 50: The number of years dogs and mushers have competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
- 1,049: The number of miles considered the traditional length of the Iditarod race
- 816: The total number of people who have completed the Iditarod in its first forty-nine years
- 10,000-20,000: The number of calories each dog needs daily while running the Iditarod
- 393: The number of miles from Unalakleet to Fairbanks, the nearest location on the road system
- 25,312: The number of cups of coffee that fueled the mushers and volunteers during the most recent Iditarod
- 1: The number of Red Lantern Awards given out each year
Source: Iditarod, Google Maps