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Racing the Alaskan wild

SPORTS | Fifty years after it began, the Iditarod Dog Sled Race continues to commemorate the Alaskan mushing tradition


A dog on Ray Redington Jr.’s team leaps with excitement at the start of the 2018 Iditarod race. Jeff Schultz/ SchultzPhoto.com

Racing the Alaskan wild
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It was January 1925, and the town of Nome, a remote, off-road settlement on Alaska’s northwestern coast, had been hit by an outbreak of ­diphtheria, a highly contagious and dangerous bacterial infection. With his supply of life-saving antitoxin expired, the town’s doctor telegraphed an emergency message: “I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin.”

To get the serum to the sick in time, a relay of 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs transported the antitoxin 674 miles to Nome. Winter temperatures plunged to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and gale-force winds whipped the snow into whiteouts. But without the heroic efforts of those men, the outbreak might have wiped out the town.

Today, airplanes and snowmobiles have largely replaced sleds for travel in rural Alaska, but recreational mushers still carry on the tradition of their predecessors through annual sled dog races. Each year on the first Saturday in March, thousands of spectators bundled in heavy parkas cheer on mushers and their dog teams lining the snowy streets of Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. At Willow Lake the following day, competitors officially begin a grueling, approximately 1,000-mile race that ends in Nome.

In storms and whiteouts I would pray He would just show me the next marker, show me where the trail is.

With a global fan base, the Iditarod draws tourists, sports fans, and dog lovers to the largest and coldest U.S. state. This year marks the Iditarod’s 50th anniversary—and the 51st run—with 34 mushers slated to compete. Although the race combines the winsome charm of sled dogs with the thrill of snow sports, the competition historically has showcased the ability of dogs and ­mushers to conquer the harsh Alaskan ­wilderness. Just ask veteran mushers.

Rod Perry, 80, is one of the few mushers still living who participated in the inaugural Iditarod in 1973. “The starting line for that first race didn’t look like it does today where everyone looks like a fashion plate out of a North Face catalog,” he said. “Rather, it was trappers and miners, Indians, homesteaders, Eskimos, bush pilots, commercial fishermen, and game guides. All people who did battle with Alaska every day as their livelihood.”

According to Perry, the Iditarod competition was originally conceived to preserve the spirit of the mushing lifestyle and only later become associated with the 1925 Serum Run.

To compete in the race, mushers and their teams of 12-14 dogs must train all year. The dash to Nome takes roughly 10 days, with teams traveling at around 10 mph, on average, and ­generally alternating between running for six hours and resting for six. Temps range from 25 degrees to 20 below zero, sometimes plunging to minus 60. The musher must feed, water, and care for his animals carefully during rest stops, often getting only 90 minutes of sleep (in the sled) during breaks. The dogs, bred for strength and the ability to withstand the cold, are ­examined by veterinarians at 26 checkpoints along the way.

DeeDee Jonrowe (standing) during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage

DeeDee Jonrowe (standing) during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage Erik Hill/Alaska Dispatch News

To date, two men, Rick Swenson and Dallas Seavey, have tied for the most Iditarod wins, with five each. But it isn’t merely a man’s race. In 1974, Mary Shields became the first woman to finish, and in 1985 Libby Riddles took first place. Susan Butcher has won four times.

DeeDee Jonrowe, who entered the competition for the first time in 1980, stands among the hardiest mushers. She competed in 36 races, finished 32 of them, and achieved second place twice. In 1997 she competed a year after being critically injured in a car accident, and in 2003 competed three weeks after finishing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

One of Jonrowe’s most harrowing experiences occurred during a preliminary race when she became stranded on a free-floating sheet of sea ice that broke away from shore. She spent nearly 24 hours marooned on the ice with eight other racers before rescuers could reach them.

Jonrowe credits her tenacity to faith in God. “The struggles on the trail can be beyond what you think you can endure,” she told me. “In storms and whiteouts I would pray He would just show me the next marker, show me where the trail is.”

Today technology has brought the Iditarod into a new era. The dog sleds are equipped with GPS trackers, video is livestreamed from checkpoints along the trail, and mushers are allowed to carry satellite phones for emergencies.

Veteran musher Scott Janssen had to use a satellite phone a few years ago after he and a fellow musher became stranded in a windstorm. He admitted to the Associated Press that although the technological additions make him feel safer, they take away some of the “toughness” of the race. “I would say conservatively that 90 percent of mushers would prefer that we had nothing at all on our sleds,” he said.

Perry, too, worries that the allure of the Iditarod’s early races—man against untamed nature—is becoming lost in these modern times: “Back then it was an adventure. Now it’s a race.”

Still, this year, as always, it will test the mettle of dog and musher alike.


Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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