This is the first in a special series on Alaska by travel columnist Carol Watts.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started with a dream by Joe Redington Sr., known as the Father of the Iditarod, to commemorate the role played by sled dogs in Alaska’s history and culture. Throughout the history of the native people of Alaska, sled dogs have served as the only viable means of transportation in a frozen wilderness.
As the gold rush brought more people to the interior of Alaska, dog sleds were used to deliver mail, food and gold to and from the mining towns. Dog sled teams and their mushers have become a symbol of the pioneering spirit in Alaska. But as roads, railways, planes and most of all snowmobiles became common in Alaska, the noble sled dog and the part it played in the history and culture of Alaska started to fade.
Many know of the famous Serum Run of 1925, when dog sled teams were called on to deliver diphtheria serum to the population of Nome. Planes were unable to fly in the stormy weather and the Bering Sea was choked with ice. No roads or railroads came anywhere close to Nome — and still don’t to this day. Teams of sled dogs delivered the life-saving serum, traveling over 674 miles from Menana near Anchorage to Nome in 5-1/2 days.
The first Iditarod Race was run in 1973, on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ purchase of the Alaskan Territory from Russia.
This year’s Iditarod XXXVIII will have its ceremonial start on the first Saturday in March — March 6, 2010 — in Anchorage. The official restart of the race will be in Willow.
It will take the contestants from 9 to 15 days average to cover the more than 1,100 miles to Nome. You can see a historical documentary video on the official Web site, www.iditarod.com. Known as The Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod has helped to make dog mushing the state sport.
You too can be a part of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race for just a little cash. Every year people bid to be an Idita-rider on the 11-mile trip from Fourth Ave. in Anchorage to the Campbell Airstrip in Bicentennial Park. Last year, eight sleds received top bids of $7,500 each.
The Iditarod Trail Sweep Tour
For a mere $25,000 you can be one of three participants to follow the teams on snowmobiles along the trail, spending 15 nights at checkpoints in shelter cabins, and tents.
The Ice Road Trucker Tour
Exclusively with Salmon Berry Tours, this is your opportunity to have a fully guided tour of the Carlile Transportation yard at the Port of Anchorage, tour a state of the art sleeper truck, followed by a 10-minute adventure in the Ice Road Simulator. A bargain at $99, you can experience what it’s like to be an ice road trucker on the Dalton Highway.
Salmon Berry Tours offers many more winter fun excursions, including the Iditarod Starting Line Event in Willow. Check out the “chute” where dogs and mushers ready for a start every two minutes for $125, including transportation.
The Northern Lights Late Night Special includes transportation from Anchorage to the Talkeetna Roadhouse for a home-style meal. A local expert on the skies will explain what’s going on in the Alaska night sky, including the Northern Lights, constellations, and why the sky looks different here. A trip to the river to see the Northern Lights and transportation back to Anchorage end this $299 adventure.
Finally there is the Ultimate Iditarod Package, nine days, from March 1 through March 9, exploring Anchorage, Turnigan Arm, Girdwood, Talkeetna, and two major checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail: Willow and Rainy Pass. Also included is a snow mobile tour to a glacier and an opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Transportation and accommodations costs $3,025.
Winter is a great time to visit Alaska. Many local festivals are held in the winter, including the Fairbanks Ice Festival.