The Iditarod: Alaska’s “Last Great Race”

The Iditarod wrapped up yesterday, with the last few mushers trickling into Nome.  Iditarod 2017 may go down as one of the greatest races of all time.  It was fast, with the top four mushers coming in under what was the standing speed record.  And the champion, Mitch Seavey, shattered that record (set by his son Dallas only a year ago) while also becoming the oldest person ever to win the Iditarod.

Probably the most famous of all sled dog races, the Iditarod is billed as the “Last Great Race on Earth,” and in its 45th year it’s as exciting as ever.

Me, bundled up and standing on 4th Street before the ceremonial start of the Iditarod

Dale and I went to Anchorage on Saturday, March 4, to watch the ceremonial kickoff of the Iditarod.  72 teams, including mushers, handlers, and over a thousand dogs, arrived in Alaska’s biggest city to parade in front of avid fans and run a ceremonial eleven-mile trek through town.  This event was purely ceremonial; the timed race would officially start the following Monday in Fairbanks, and the teams would cover roughly a thousand miles through some of the fiercest terrain in Alaska.

Here’s the story of Alaska’s legendary, brutal “Last Great Race.”

The history

Iditarod, the race, began in the 1970s, but Iditarod the trail has been around for hundreds of years, originally an informal group of paths between Seward and Nome that were used by Athabaskan and Eskimo Natives.  When gold was found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Iditarod trail then swarmed with gold seekers heading to different sites within the Alaskan interior, and dog sled teams provided the means to reach remote outposts along the way.

The historic Iditarod trail was designated a U.S. National Historic Trail in 1978.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Sled teams delivered people, equipment, mail, food, and other supplies to both Native villages and the settlements that had sprung up to accommodate the newcomers.  When the gold boom went bust, however, many settlements were abandoned and the trail fell into disuse.  With the advent of planes and later snowmobiles, both of which made winter transportation much easier, mushing was almost obsolete by the 1960’s.

A few dedicated mushers, however, couldn’t abide watching the extinction of this unique bit of Alaskan culture, so they decided to do something about it.  Joe Redington, considered the Father of the Iditarod Race, worked with a few others to create a long-distance race through the wilds of interior Alaska in order to honor the historic Iditarod trail as well as the tradition of dog mushing, which made the trail accessible to so many.

The first Iditarod, which kicked off in March 1973, started in Anchorage.  34 mushers entered the event, and 22 of those made it to the finish line in Nome.  The U.S. Army cleared portions of the path, which had become densely overgrown, but the mushers of that first race had to break much of their own trail, and the journey took winner Dick Wilmarth almost three weeks.  But the race was a success; the next year, 26 people finished, and the Iditarod now draws an average of 65 mushers to the starting line every year.

The trail

Norwegian musher Robert Sørlie nearing Nome in the 2007 Iditarod  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a reason the Iditarod is so legendary.  It’s an epic of a race, an extreme test of endurance for both human and animal, and in 45 years, less than 1000 teams have crossed the finish line.  Mushers and their dog athletes traverse some of the harshest terrain in the world, running atop frozen rivers and Bering Sea ice and through remote backcountry wilderness.  The teams endure deep freezing temperatures, blizzards and white-out conditions, high winds, and an intense northern sun.  Frost bite, hypothermia, and exhaustion are all part of the experience.  Dogs suffer injuries, and many years one or more have died on the trail, including four this year.

Give or take, the teams cover about the distance of Los Angeles to Portland, or Chicago to Boston, or Austin to Des Moines, Iowa.  The “official” distance of the race is 1,049 miles, in honor of Alaska’s standing as the 49th American state, but the actual distance, which varies from year to year, comes in at just under 1,000 miles.

The race has a northern and a southern route, both of which are part of the National Historic Trail.  Originally, participants traversed only the northern path, but some of the small villages through which the race passed couldn’t meet the needs of the teams and spectators every year, so both sections of the trail are now used.  In even years, mushers follow the northern trail, while in odd years, they take the southern route.

Alternating between south and north also ensures that the race passes through the town of Iditarod, after which the race is named.  Iditarod was an Athabaskan village that grew into a bustling town during the mining and gold booms.  Abandoned after the gold rush dried up, Iditarod is now nothing more than a ghost town, but it comes alive every other year when the dogsled teams stream through.

Regardless of what year it is, the ceremonial start takes place in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March, with the real race, called the ReStart, kicking off the next day in the nearby town of Willow.  Here’s what the routes look like, from start to finish:

The Northern and Southern Routes of the Iditarod.  Note: this map is old; the ReStart was moved from Wasilla to Willow over a decade ago.  (Source: Wikipedia)

This year, the ReStart was held in Fairbanks because of unsafe trail conditions in the Alaska Range outside of Willow.  The alternate route can be seen in light blue on the map below:

The mushers are required to stop at numerous checkpoints along the trail, where they may decide to take a rest break and enjoy the hospitality of the locals or just pick up “drop bags” (supplies that are prepared in advance and delivered by the Air Force) and then blow through town.  The teams are also required to take three established rest breaks, including an eight-hour layover at any checkpoint along the Yukon River, an eight-hour rest at White Mountain (near Nome), and an additional 24-hour layover taken at any checkpoint on the route.  Other than that, teams take rest breaks as needed, and the best mushers use flexible rest times strategically to maximize their teams’ strengths and hopefully outwit their opponents.

The mushers

Alaskans respect grit and endurance, and in that regard, Iditarod mushers are rock stars, men and women who have passed through the worst conditions Alaska can deliver and come out on the other side.  Top mushers are household names around here.

Most of Iditarod’s mushers are Alaskans, but a few of contenders hail from the Lower 48, Canada, and places as far away as Hungary and Norway.  Five of this year’s mushers are former Iditarod winners who returned for another chance at the championship, and included in these are Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Dallas Seavey, who have each won four titles, a distinction very few can claim.

“Dynasties of Mushdom”

Reaching Nome is a remarkable feat no matter who you are, but three race pioneers—Joe Redington, Dan Seavey, and Dick Mackey—have each created legendary families that include three generations of champion mushers.  It’s a phenomenon that one writer called “Dynasties of Mushdom.”

First, the Redingtons.  Besides Joe, who I said earlier is known as the Father of the Iditarod, five other Redingtons have competed in one or more Iditarod race, and three of Redington’s grandsons—Ray, Ryan, and Robert—not only ran the 2017 race but also finished in the top 25, with Ray coming in 7th and Robert being named Rookie of the Year.  The trio also became the first set of three brothers to run and finish the Iditarod in a single year.

Joe, who died of cancer in 1999, never won the Iditarod, but without him, the race might not exist.  At each Iditarod Trail Board Meeting, he’s honored in a unique way: his name is called during roll call, and the Board President excuses his absence by stating, “Joe is on the trail.”

Up next: the Mackey family.  Dick Mackey ran the first Iditarod, and then in 1978 he won the race by one second, the closest margin in event history.  In 1983, son Ric came out on top, making Dick and Ric the first father/son champions.  Three other sons (Bill, Jason, and Lance) and one grandson (Cain), have also finished the Iditarod.  Lance holds the extraordinary record of winning the Iditarod four times in a row (2007-2010).  He also won the Yukon Quest, another thousand-mile race, four times.  All this is after beating throat cancer!  His remarkable comeback is the subject of the documentary The Great Alone.

Mitch Seavey, 2017 Iditarod winner, at the starting line in Anchorage

Finally, we have the Seaveys.  Over much of the past decade, two Seaveys—father Mitch and son Dallas—have dominated the championship podium, with either Mitch or Dallas winning the last six events (and with the other one coming in second the last three years).

This year, it was Mitch, who at age 57 was unstoppable.  He set two Iditarod records, breaking the speed record that his son set last year while also becoming the oldest musher to ever win the event.

Dallas, meanwhile, may not have won this year (he came in second), but he has nothing to hang his head about: in 2012 he became the youngest musher to win the Iditarod, and twice he broke speed records by huge margins.  And like I mentioned above, he is one of only seven elite mushers who have won four or more Iditarods.¹

Dallas Seavey. What a rock star

Dallas and Mitch aren’t the only mushers in the Seavey family.  Dan, the patriarch, placed third in the original 1973 Iditarod and has since finished four other events (most recently at the age of 74).  Two of Dan’s other grandsons as well as a granddaughter-in-law have also made it to Nome, for a total of six Seavey mushers to complete the Iditarod.²

Not just for men

While males outnumber females on the trail, mushing is not just a man’s sport; in fact neither gender has a significant advantage on the trail.  This year there are 17 female mushers, and one of the greatest mushers of all time is a woman.  Here’s a look at a few remarkable female mushers:

  • In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod.  She did it by leading her team through a brutal storm that brought the other dog teams to a halt.  Her run, which took a little over 18 days to complete, gave her instant stardom and inspired the creation of a T-shirt that said, “Alaska: Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.”
(Source: Amazon.com)
  • Hands down one of the greatest Iditarod mushers of all time is Susan Butcher, who competed 17 years in a row and won four times.  She also set several speed records, and the only race she didn’t finish was in 1985, when a moose attack on the trail killed two of her dogs and injured several others.  Susan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and died in August 2006; in 2008, the State of Alaska created Susan Butcher Day in her honor, and it’s observed on the first Saturday of March (the day of the race’s ceremonial start in Anchorage).

Here are some remarkable women running this year’s race:

  • 62-year-old DeeDee Jonrowe, from Willow, has 32 Iditarod finishes, including 16 in the top 10 (she was 47th this year).
  • The fierce competitor Aliy Zirkle, from Two Rivers, has now finished 17 Iditarods.  From 2012-2016, she placed in the top five each year, including three second-place finishes. This year she had another top 10 finish, in 8th position.
  • Jessie Royer, from Fairbanks, placed highest of any female competitor this year, coming in 5th in one of the fastest races on record.  She has 15 Iditarod finishes, 6 of those falling in the top 10.

These women, as well as many others who have run the Iditarod, prove that, when it comes to sled dog racing, men and women are on an equal playing field.

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It was wonderful to have a front-row view of the Iditarod, which celebrates Alaskan history and culture in such an exciting way!


Notes:

¹ Only one person, Rick Swenson, has won five Iditarods (1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1991).

² Dan, Mitch, and family live in Seward, and their kennel, Seavey’s Ididaride, offers dogsledding tours.  We may have to try it out one of these days.

Featured image (top): Dallas Seavey and his team at the Iditarod starting line in Anchorage

For some beautiful photos of the Iditarod, take a look at this website.  If you want to read more about this year’s race, the Alaska Dispatch News also has lots of great coverage.  I pretty much immersed myself in it the past few weeks!