It’s March which means spring will officially start this month. So why is “Dashing Through The Snow” playing in my head? Shouldn’t I be thinking about playing in the sand with the spring breakers descending upon the beautiful Emerald Coast? Nope. I’ve been captivated by a sporting event. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has just concluded!
For those of you who are geographically challenged, the Iditarod Trail is located in the 49th state of the Union, Alaska. If you have never been to Alaska, let me assure you that it is one COLD place. I was in Alaska for a cruise one summer, and it was necessary to wear winter clothes while there. I can hardly imagine what winter weather would feel like.
The Iditarod Trail is one of the first four U.S. National Historic Trails designated in 1978. Historically, it was used for all winter travel. Need mail or groceries delivered or gold and furs hauled out of town? Dogs sleds using this trail provided the means of conveyance. Iditarod is now a ghost town. The settlement was likely doomed by its name. Iditarod means “far distant place” in the indigenous Athabaskan language. If it’s that far and hard to get there, who really wants to go?
Today dog sledding is popular in Alaska for recreation even if it isn’t necessary for grocery and mail delivery. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is THE sports event of the early spring. Competitors from far distant places such as Norway (from which the 2018 champion hails) and Sweden travel to Alaska to take part in this sporting event. The annual competition involves a field of over 50 mushers and around 1,000 dogs.
What? You don’t think dog sledding is a real sport? Why sled dog races were a demonstration sport at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. If it’s showcased at the Olympics, it must be a sport, right? Let’s just say animal rights groups are none too keen on the “sport.” With greyhound racing having being banned, can sled dog races be far behind?
While Iditarod’s a dog race, humans play an integral part because they drive the sleds. The driver of a dog sled yells “mush” and is referred to as the musher. So the story goes, French drivers would yell “Marche!” to their dogs which is equivalent to the driver commanding the dogs to run. Marche sounds similar to mush which is a shorter word and easier to spell. So, VOILA! We have mushers.
And at whom is the musher yelling? His dog team, of course. Siberian huskies are the favored racing dog. Each team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has 12-16 dogs on it. Dogs pull the sled side by side in pairs. At least five of these dogs must be on the towline when the sled crosses the finish line. The lead dog is a crucial choice for the musher. All the dogs naturally want to be the lead dog because, as they say, if you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.
Dogs can be temperamental athletes. French competitor Nicolas Petit was forced to withdraw from this year’s race despite a several hour lead after he yelled at one of his dogs for engaging in a dog fight. Apparently the rest of the dog team did not take kindly to the admonishment; they all simply refused to move. Plopped down in the snow and not budging, these ticked off canine athletes had a great view of the scenery, i.e., other teams passing them by and leaving them in the snow dust. Ultimately, the dogs had to be hauled back to the previous checkpoint by snowmobile. I guess they wouldn’t go forward or backwards.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a real marathon. In fact, it is WAY longer than a marathon. The trail is approximately 1,000 long and covers some rough terrain. In this year’s race 52 mushers faced the challenge of going over two mountain ranges and the frozen Yukon River before heading up the Bering Sea Coast. A total of ten mushers withdrew during the race for various reasons.
The actual trail alternates between a southern route (used in ODD years) and a northern route (used in EVEN years). Over twenty checkpoints along each route allow mushers time to rest and pick up supplies. Drop bags of supplies are flown ahead to each checkpoint. The supplies might include extra booties for the dogs, food for the mushers and the dogs, and items needed for sled maintenance. Yup, the dogs probably won’t budge if they aren’t feed either.
The 2019 race began on March 2 in Anchorage. This start was merely ceremonial. An official restart of the race was later held in Willow, Alaska, 80 miles north of Anchorage. The race, which lasts 8-17 days, ends when the last musher either crosses the finish line in Nome or drops out of the race. Nome is a Gold Rush town, making the mushers desire to go for the gold literal as well as figurative.
While dogs pulling sleds isn’t that high tech, technology was definitely a part of the 2019 race. Sleds were equipped with GPS trackers so officials could keep up with competitors’ locations. Live video was also streamed from checkpoints along the trail. So, while you may not have been able to travel to a far distant place to watch the race, technology allowed you to view it from the comfort (and WARMTH) of your own home.
Weather is a huge factor in the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. In 2015 and 2017, the race had to be re-routed due to lack of snow. Regardless of which route the mushers race on, freezing temperatures and whiteout conditions may pose challenges.
Weather is not the only challenge either. Mushers have to run the gauntlet of “Moose Alley.” The first hundred miles of the trail past Willow is an area with a large population of moose. These large animals are particular fond of the rather level ground of the trail and like to hang out there. The presence of a moose on the trail is a hazard for dog teams. One year a couple of team dogs were killed and several injured when a sled in the race turned a corner to come face to face with a pregnant moose who was not in the mood for company. The moose was ultimately shot by a musher. Moose meat, anyone?
The winner of the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was Alaskan native Pete Kaiser who crossed the finish line in the wee hours of Wednesday, March 13th. Defending champion Norwegian Joar Ulsom claimed second place. Kaiser’s win paid big. His prize? $50,000 and a new pickup truck, presumably for hauling his sled and dogs from point A to point B to practice for or to compete in the next race.
While it would be cool, literally and figuratively, to attend the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, I’m not sure I’ll ever attend one. I moved to the Sunshine State for a reason–to stay warm. Thanks to technology, I can still enjoy the Alaskan wilderness scenery from across the country where I am safe from an angry moose and blizzard conditions. Maybe I’ll eat some Moose Tracks Ice Cream and a Blizzard while watching the race just to add a touch of cold.
Just WONDER-ing: Would you want to be a spectator at the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race? Why or why not? Do you think that dog sled races constitute animal abuse?