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Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Last GREAT race!!

  It is time again for The Last Great Race to begin! Every  year I follow the Iditarod Sled Dog Race to Nome, Alaska; a trip by dog sled over vast, difficult terrain including desolate tundra, dense forest, snow scoured mountains, and the frozen edge of the Bering sea, some 1490 miles (1688 km). It is grueling, dangerous for the humans far more than their canine companions, and will test everyone's endurance. Dogs and their mushers must work together as a solid team in order to survive. The dogs are the stars in the Iditarod and they are why I follow it. Those who know me well, are aware that I have no passing fondness for canines. But I have great respect for working dogs--who actually work for their keep, and even more for Alaskan sled dogs--who do their work in some of the worst terrain and weather in the world.

   James Kari, Assistant Professor, University of Alaska Native Language Center in 1979 stated: The name Iditarod came from an Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod for the Iditarod River. This name means distant or distant place. This word is still known by elders in the villages of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Holy Cross.”
  This race commemorates sled dog freight and mail carrying in the Last Frontier as well as the famous 1925 serum run when sled dogs and the mushers braved the harsh climate and risked life and limb to deliver medicine to the diphtheria stricken community of Nome and other surrounding communities. All other means of transportation had failed and sled dogs were the only means available to save the citizens of this small native village on the edge of Norton Sound on the Bering Strait. Twenty mushers and one hundred and fifty sled dogs relayed diphtheria antitoxin across the interior of the Territory of Alaska. It took them five and half days.
   There are two different routes: the northern route is run in even numbered years and the southern route is run in odd numbered years. 
   The teams average 16 dogs apiece which means over 1000 dogs leave Anchorage, Alaska at the race starting line. Now days there is a lot of money and recognition given to the winners-the first sled dog team to pass through the burled arch in Nome. This year there are 66 teams of which 14 are women.
   Mushers are allowed to assist each other on the trail, but help from outsiders is not permitted. If any outside assistance is accepted for emergencies, it has to be reported to officials and a penalty may be imposed. The physical and mental demands for mushers are high. Frostbite can set in. Snow blindness, broken bones and illnesses can occur. Lack of sleep can bring on hallucinations. Dogs can make a wrong turn and a team might end up off course, with the musher desperately trying to get the pack to rejoin the trail.
   To ensure the well being of the race dogs, around 37 veterinarians tend to them during the race, and pre-race exams are required. Still, overexertion leads to death for some of the race dogs. 
Susan Butcher and her team
   A host of medical problems can crop up, from foot problems, dehydration and viruses to ulcers, hypothermia and heart problems.  Dogs can find themselves tangled up in a fight with a moose--something that happened to four time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher. She had to withdraw form a race she and her team were winning when several of her dogs were seriously injured by an attacking moose. 
   A seemingly content team of dogs can engage in a dog fight. When a dog team gets tangled up, dogs can be strangled. Dogs can break free of the harness and become lost; microchips implanted in the dogs and collar tags help identify lost dogs (and also assist in keeping track of dogs that are dropped off at checkpoints during the race). Since its inception in 1973 one hundred and twenty dogs have died in this race.
   Many people feel it is unethical and cruel to run dogs so far, so fast. I ask them to please bear in mind these dogs are their mushers bread and butter. I have known mushers personally and I have never seen dogs so well cared for, fed, exercised and respected. Nature and man designed these dogs to run and they literally hate to stand still. A two hundred mile practice run for a dog team of six seems like the equivalent of a humans six mile jog around the park. I've been a passenger in a sled and watched the dogs on a sixty mile journey. They never tired. Every time we stopped to refresh ourselves the dogs ate better than we did and were pulling at the traces and yapping to get started as soon as possible.
    Each team competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is made up of a dog driver, the dogs and a whole lot of gear. The dogs that race in the Iditarod are primarily of a mixed breed, called Alaskan husky, which is not a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. People sometimes assume the Iditarod sled dogs are Siberian husky or malamute, both official American Kennel Club breeds, but they are not the preferred dogs for most mushers.
   Alaskan huskies are bred for their speed and endurance. Dogs that weigh around 40 to 45 pounds are the ideal size. The most intelligent and fastest dogs are picked to be lead dogs and run in the front of the pack. Behind them run swing dogs, whose job is to direct the team around turns and curves. At the back of the dog team are the wheel dogs or wheelers, who are right in front of the sled and are usually the largest and strongest of the team. The rest of the dogs are known simply as team dogs.
   The training for each team of dogs varies by musher (or whoever is preparing the dogs to race). Conditioning the dogs to run long distances is vital, and teams may cover 2,000 to 3,000 miles in the course of their training leading up to the race. Since training may take place year-round, the dogs sometimes run on dry land, and sometimes pull all-terrain vehicles.
Musher heating up dog food on the Iditarod Trail.
    Sled dogs need to eat around 10,000 calories per day. During the Iditarod race, that translates into about 2,000 pounds of food for one team for the entire race. Meat is the main ingredient, but other fats, oils, dry dog foods and vitamin supplements are also included. The dogs are fed at each checkpoint but they also get snacks every few hours. Before the race, mushers ship food and gear to points along the trail through the race committee so it is waiting for them at checkpoints. Gear for dogs includes fabric booties to protect their feet from the elements, and each team may go through 2,000 booties during the race.
   There are a maximum of 16 dogs on a team. At the race's start there must be between 12 and 16 dogs per entrant. At the race's end, at least six dogs must be part of the team that crosses the finish line. During the race, teams typically travel 5 to12 mph.
   Though competitors may have people who assist with race preparations the rest of the year, when it comes time for the Iditarod, the musher must compete on his or her own. What makes a good musher? Strong leg muscles and good balance help, but mental stamina is clearly required.
   For the race, mushers are required to pack a sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, and a cooker or pot and fuel for boiling water. They outfit themselves in attire that will protect them from the harsh elements, including warm boots and eye goggles. Ski poles, a gun, a headlamp and food are among the other supplies carried on the trail.
   Mushers sleep very little during the race. There is a designated sleeping area for the dog drivers at each checkpoint, but other than one 24-hour and two eight-hour mandatory rests, competitors push themselves to stay awake.
   The official race rules require that "some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn" but specifications are up to each racer. Typically, the sleds used weigh around 100 pounds (easily twice that once loaded with gear) and cost around $1,500. They have a basket where gear is carried and a tired dog can rest, and are outfitted with a braking device. Mushers stand on the sled's runners, which are usually made of wood and covered in plastic or Teflon, and extend out from the sled's basket.
   The dogs are attached to the sled with a series of lines called rigging. This includes the tow line (or gang line), tug lines and neck lines. The dogs each wear a collar and a harness. The tow line connects the dogs to the sled. The tug line connects the dogs' harnesses to the tow line. The neck line connects the dogs' collars to the tow line. There are no reins, and dogs respond to the musher's vocal commands.
   Tether lines and stakes are used to secure dogs during breaks. A snow hook or ice hook, a heavy piece of metal that can be set into the snow, is also used to restrain the team as needed. A snub line is a piece of rope that connects the sled to a tree or other object when not in use. (, accessed March 2nd, 2013.)

   The average cost to run this race is $50,000.00 to run an appropriate dog kennel and breed a team; $10,000.00 for the race entry fee, dog food for the race, dog supplies, musher supplies, and freight. The winner arrives first through the burled arch in Nome with the shortest time and receives $68.000.00 in cash (U.S. Federal taxes apply), a brand new Dodge RAM 4x4v pickup. $600,000.00 is distributed to the top 30 finishers each year, and every musher who finishes the is awarded $1049.00 along with brass belt buckles and special Iditarod patches. The Rookie of the Year Award is given to the musher who places best amongst those racing for the first time.
   The first musher to reach the halfway point in the town of Iditarod in odd-numbered years and the town of Cripple in even-numbered years receives the GCI Dorothy Page Halfway Award and $3,000 in gold nuggets. The first musher to reach the cities of Anvik in odd-numbered years and Ruby in even-numbered years gets a seven-course meal prepared by Alaska's top chef at the checkpoint and $3,500 in one-dollar bills as winner of the Millennium Hotel First Musher to the Yukon Award. The first musher to make it to Unalakleet receives a hand-carved trophy and $2,500 in gold nuggets awarded by Wells Fargo. The musher who crosses the finish line last receives the Wells Fargo Red Lantern Award.
   The golden embroidered harness of the Lolly Medley Memorial Golden Harness award is usually given to the lead dog of the winning team and voted on by the other mushers. Consequently in the 2008 race the golden harness was voted to Babe, lead dog of the third place team. Babe was eleven years old and it was her ninth Iditarod.
   With modern technology, videos are available throughout the race as well as live web cam feeds and one can log in to the official race web page and choose favorite mushers. E-mails will be sent out to you whenever a musher you select checks in and out along the race. There is also an educational tab for teachers who wish to include the Iditarod in their classroom to teach about geography, culture and history.

Iditarod musher Rachael Scdoris
The Story of the Widow’s Lamp
    During the days of Alaska sled dog freighting and mail carrying, dog drivers relied on a series of roadhouses between their village destinations. Since these mushers ventured out in most all kinds of weather, for safety reasons they found the idea that pilots rely on, known today as the flight plan. Word was relayed ahead that a musher and team were on the trail, and a kerosene lamp was lit and hung outside the roadhouse. It not only helped the dog driver find his destination at night, but more importantly, it signified that a team or teams were somewhere out on the trail. The lamp was not extinguished until the musher safely reached his destination.
    In keeping with that tradition, the Iditarod Trail Committee will light a “Widow’s Lamp” at 10:00 a.m., on the first Sunday in March, in Nome at the trail’s end. This lamp, which will be attached to the Burled Arch, our official finish line, will remain lit as long as there are mushers on the trail competing in the race. When the last musher crosses the finish line, officials will extinguish the “Widow’s Lamp” signifying the official end of the Iditarod for that year.

   All too often, public and media think of the race as being over when the winner crosses the finish line, yet there are still teams on the trail. Let it be remembered, Iditarod is not over until the last musher has reached Nome and is off the trail.
   In 2008 and again in 2009 Twenty year old Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Oregon, USA, met the prequalification and finished the race 57th and 45th respectively. She is legally blind and was allowed a visual interpreter on his own sled to travel by her side and warn of dangers she could not see. Born with this congenital disease her vision is 20/200 and she is color blind. She is only too aware of the importance of the widow's lamp--even if she could not see it clearly.


Anonymous said...

That was great! I got lost for 40 minutes looking at various race videos. Love those dogs! And crazy mushers. Thanks for an "inside" look at some of the details.
No snow here in Pullman. No flowers either.

Anonymous said...

Jaq: A superb description of
an event of which many are not aware. Suspect we who live and have lived in northern climes
are more aware of such similar events in the north.
Have also followed the races
as well; it is something to simply see the dogs pulling a sled; something that was also common in the Canadian Artic until the advent of motorized
snow mobiles.
Having been in the far north, on winter assignment with one of my employers some thirty five years ago can well attest to the harsh climate and the wonderful way such animals are utilized and treated. Was at the mouth
of the Mackenzie River on the Bering Sea doing photography. it was a very short four days there, flying from Yellowknife, and then Edmonton and Toronto. I want to return
in the winter, not the summer which can very different.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Karen! Lovely to hear from you. I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I can see you flitting around from web link to web link, enjoying all the action!
Big hugs!
Love Jaq

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Bryce! I knew if anyone appreciated the Iditarod it would be you! I think the areas you mention would actually be much more beautiful and entrancing in winter--without 300 million mosquitoes keeping you company!

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs