Iditarod historical Alaskan tradition: Race celebrates 44th year

2016 marks the 44th year of the Iditarod. Photo credit: Inna Mikhailova

The 44th Iditarod starts this coming Saturday. With 86 mushers and over 1,300 dogs it truly is the “the last great race.”

The ceremonial start on March 5, will be, as always, down Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage. The racers leave in two minute intervals starting at 10 a.m. At a banquet held two days before the ceremonial start, the mushers randomly draw out their starting number to determine the order.

The teams of both dogs and mushers will then make their way to Willow, where a restart for the race takes place the following day at 2 p.m. The teams then head into the interior where they make their way towards Nome. The first teams will begin to arrive starting about 9 days after the ceremonial start.

This year marks the 44th annual Iditarod, with the first race dating back to 1973. 2016 will see eight more racers than the previous year, making the total 86. Of these 86, 18 will be rookies competing in their first Iditarod.

When the race began in 1973, it was in response to the threat to the sled dog tradition that the invention of the “iron dog” — or snow machine — posed. For hundreds of years, Native Alaskans had used teams of dogs to pull them from place to place during the inhospitable winter months. This tradition found its way into the lives of early Alaskan settlers from the lower 48 as they needed to ship supplies to some of the more remote parts of the state.

The invention of the snow machine threatened the tradition of sled dogs, but it also threatened the dogs themselves. In the 1960s, when the snow machine was invented, the following years saw a decline in numbers of the Alaskan Husky breed. The Iditarod was a response, not only to the threat to the tradition of dog sledding, but also the preservation of a strong breed of dogs.

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The modern Iditarod race now lays along a common route that freight runners would take from Anchorage to Nome to deliver much wanted winter supplies to the settlers and natives there.

This modern route is divided into two different tracks. During even number race years, the teams go along the northern route to Nome, which has them traveling a total distance of 975 miles. During odd number years, the racers use the southern route, which is a total of 998 miles.

Northern route of the Iditarod that's used during even numbered years like 2016. Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Both routes pass along many of the same check points and both pass over the Iditarod river, which is the name sake of the race.

The Iditarod river is a tributary of the Innoko river and the word Iditarod is said to be derived from the Ingalik and Holikachuk words that mean “distant place.” The race, regardless of the northern of southern routes, is nearly 1,000 miles, which is indeed a journey to a distant place.

It is a great distance for the dogs to run, and as they run for a large part of the day, they need a lot of calories. According to the official Iditarod website each dog, all 16 on the team, need to consume about 10,000 calories a day. This provides them with the energy they need to sustain long distance runs for very long periods of time.

Historically, when mushers would run the freight trails, like the one that passes over the Iditarod river, there would be a lantern lit at each of the stops along the way. These lanterns would provide the team with a direction to go and allow the team to get some rest along the route.

The modern Iditarod patterns one of its own traditions after this one. The Widow’s Lantern is lit in Nome on the first Sunday in March, coinciding with the restart of the race in Willow that same day. The Widow’s Lantern stays lit until the last of the racers passes the finish line, symbolically guiding the way of all the teams to their final destination of Nome.

Though 86 mushers and their teams of dogs, usually comprised of 16 total dogs will start the race on March 5th, not every team will complete the total distance. Some teams will drop out early. There has never been a year where all the mushers finished the race, but 2004 came close. A total of 77 of the teams finished the race that year, another 10 did not.

The Iditarod is not an easy race, the mushers and their team of dogs train all year to make the near thousand mile journey, and every single one of them that finishes shows a level of tenacity. A red lantern is awarded to the last team to finish to commend them on their determination. Though the red lantern started as a gag prize, it has evolved to be a symbol for the strength and never-give-up attitude of the last musher and their team.

The first person to finish the Iditarod does not walk away with a lantern. The winner will get a purse of nearly $70,000. The funds have been going up in recent years as the race has grown in its attention and international appeal.

Similarly, more and more of the racers have sponsors, which only adds to the growth of the event over the years. What started as a very Alaskan race now has racers from all over the United States as well as International participants all hoping to be immortalized in Iditarod glory.

For anyone interested in keeping up to date on the race or following the progress of their favorite race team, the official Iditarod website offers a GPS tracking map that shows the progress in real time. Each team is wearing a GPS chip that sends the signal that is uploaded to the Iditarod website.

Not all finish the race, and not all place first, but every musher and team of dogs share in the spirit and hardwork that Alaska was founded upon. This race is a fitting tribute to the traditions, the dogs and the state that it represents.