The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race follows an historic gold miners’ supply trail through the Alaska Range, over the Kuskokwim Mountains, and along the frozen Yukon River toward Norton Sound on the forbidding Bering Sea.
According to ITC archivist Nicki Nielsen, historically “Roadhouses lined the trail…located at intervals of about twenty miles, approximately a one day journey.” Some of these roadhouses still stand today and are used by Iditarod competitors as shelter cabins during periods of severe weather.
The Iditarod Trail crosses many cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. Along its route, mushers encounter four distinct cultures: Anglo-Saxon, Athabascan Indian, Yup’ik (Eskimo), and Inupiat (Eskimo). They also experience a wide range of population density at the checkpoints. Some are pristine wilderness with only a tent erected by the ITC; others are ghost towns, relics of Alaska’s former gold-mining heyday. Many of the mushers’ layovers occur at small towns and villages, but large metropolitan areas like Anchorage are also part of the package.
Author Mary Hood explains in her book A Fan’s Guide to the Iditarod (Alpine Publications, 1996) that “The southern route, run in odd years, traverses 1,161 miles. Spanning almost the entire width of Alaska, the trail passes through numerous geographic regions as well. The Iditarod Trail Committee has described it as ‘A race over …the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. She throws jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness, and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod.’”
Miki and Julie Collins, authors of Dog Driver: A Guide for Mushers (Alpine Publications, 2009), advise that dogs need a minimum of 1,000 to 1,500 training miles in the months before the start of the race. A race veterinarian will examine all dogs for health and soundness. They are also tested for drugs, and their health and fitness will be assessed at every checkpoint.
“The last leg of the race from Safety to Nome is a distance of 22 miles. Most of the mushers breeze through Safety, stopping only long enough to sign the checker’s pad and pick up their mandatory finsher’s bib. They may drop any dog that is not up to the hard sprint home and all non-essential gear.”
Miles from Nome the front-runners begin to see spectators on snow machines lining the trail, as well as reporters and camera crews. Experienced drivers say the last few hundred yards are pure chaos. Libby Riddles described it as “driving through a hurricane.” After more than a week on the trail, the teams finally tow their captains under the famed burled arch, where everyone who finishes wins a personal victory.