Iditarod- The Last Great Race on Earth

This past Sunday, Bill and I went out to Willow to see the restart of the Iditarod.  Every year during Fur Rondy, the ceremonial start of the Iditarod takes place.  I had to work on Saturday so I missed it, but I was glad I got to go up to Willow.  I am going to tell you a little about the Iditarod, some misconceptions, and share some pics and vids that I took at the race.  Note the dogs' reactions when pulling up to the start line, during the count down, and mushing away.

It all started in 1925 when the bush village of Nome was stricken with an epidemic of Diphtheria.  With Nome being accessible only by plane and trail, it was up to the relentless dog mushers to carry the serum.  Part of that same trail the original musher took is still a part of the Iditarod trail today.  During the ceremonial start in Anchorage, the number one bib musher still symbolizes that fearless dog sled team who saved Nome.

Jamaican Newton Marshall showing his lead dog some love.  Something that I saw every musher do- run up and down their lines at the start, giving love to their team.

Now, the race takes place every year with mushers who still have that same fearlessness.  Teams from all over the world (Alaska, some states down in the lower 48, and seven international teams- Jamaica, New Zealand, Norway, and Canada) compete in the 1150 mile race across western Alaska.  The race is a long adventure lasting over a week, with the fastest race time being 8 days 22 hours held by Martin Buser in 2002.  These sled dog teams cross over some of the toughest terrain in the world; through deep forests, frozen rivers, freezing tundra, and over wicked mountains.  There are checkpoints along the way that mushers check-in with and take breaks.  There are also required layovers, one for 8 hours and one for 24 hours.

Musher handlers help keep the dogs from pulling so hard at the start.

Lance Mackey, four time consecutive winner of the Iditarod.

Woman have and still do race in this amazing feat:  Mary Shields being the first woman to finish in 1974, Libby Riddles the first woman to win in 1985, and Susan Butcher winning the race four times (the record in 5 wins and 4 consecutive wins).  This year 13 women are racing.  Now that is awesome. 

More sled dog love.

A lot has been in debate over sled dogs and mushing over the last few decades.  Abuse, neglect, horrible living conditions, and belief of "making the dogs" pull sleds are a few very misunderstood associations with dog mushing.  Yes, you have your, excuse the word, jackasses, who do not understand how to run a kennel in the correct way like this idiot (as a side note here, for those that do not know, there is a LONG list of requirements, permits, and regulations that go with running a kennel.  Here in Alaska they are trying to enforce these rules, sometimes not always as strict as they would like due to limited resources and man power.  I do not agree with how the borough handles some situations like with that musher a few years ago.  I do not stand by their decision to not only allow him to maintain his kennel, but to help him "down-size" is pretty much outrageous.  This is just one of the very few extreme circumstances where people with little to no experience are building kennels for the wrong reason- for money and not for love).  But, people who are truly into mushing for the right reasons take better care of their sled dogs than most people take of their pet dogs.  For a dog team to be fit and able to run any distance, whether that be for racing, sport, or for fun, they must be in the best condition and health that they can be.  It is very expensive to not only start a kennel, but to maintain one.  The initial cost of even building a kennel can cost around $35,000 with monthly estimates being as high as $10,000.  Now, for someone to spend that kind of money on dogs really have to love mushing and sled dogs.

Dallas Seavey giving his team some last minute pets.

Not only are sled dogs health closely monitored during the year, but at every check point dogs are looked over by highly skilled volunteer veterinarians who makes sure that all dogs stay in the highest of health.  There has been dogs die during the race in it's history, but none of these to my knowledge were from neglect.  I have a book by the famous musher Jeff King, who writes in his bibliography the devastation and sadness that came over him when he lost one of his dogs on the trail (if you are interested in reading a fascinating story about dog mushing and the Iditarod, check out his book:  Cold Hands, Warm Heart).  It does happen as in any sport that sometimes the athletes get hurt.  Yes, sled dogs do die on the trail yearly, with the exclusion of last year's race where no dogs died.  This, of course, is a field day for animal rights groups who, from the lower 48 mind you, want to pitch a fit about the race being full of abuse, neglect, and such.  They obviously have never seen the race, nor stepped foot in a kennel (which I have been in numerous).  These dogs are breed to live in the conditions they do, to run as far and as fast as they can, and to love every second of it.  However, many mushers quit the race each year when they know that their dogs' health is in danger.  Most likely causes for these deaths are the musher inexperience or freak accidents (as with what happened to King).  The Iditarod committee has made the entries more intense, helping reduce the number of inexperienced mushers. 

To make it very clear, sled dogs LOVE to run.  These dogs were bread to run and have racing in their genes.  If it wasn't for these great races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, these bloodlines would have been lost.  If it isn't a dead giveaway watching these videos of the dogs lining up at the start line that running is their passion, I don't know how to break it down any simpler.  My boss has three sled dogs and I am in an immediate position to tell you, there is nothing more that these dogs love doing than running (ok, well, they may love getting petted and a good belly scratch).  And if it isn't evident how much these racers love their dogs, then I guess you haven't look deep enough at the photos.  My words are words, but the emotion and pure energy that these photos display speak more words than I could ever write in this post.

If you would like more information on the Iditarod, check out the webpage.  Also, if you would like to follow along with the standings, meet the mushers, and see history and other great information, do some browsing on the site.  Peace out.

Random picture of me in the parking lot in front of a snow wall.  The snow was piled up like this around the whole perimeter of the parking lot and also down the middle.

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