March 5, 2011 marked the ceremonial start of this year’s Iditarod in Anchorage. Snow is trucked onto Fourth Ave. and vendors set up to serve the thousands of tourists. More than 1,000 dogs are barking in an excited frenzy, eager to do what they have been bred to do. The crowd cheers as a musher starts the race every few minutes. But this doesn’t count. The real start of the Iditarod is held the following day on frozen Willow Lake, about 70 miles north of Anchorage.
The scene in Willow is much quieter. Mushers here are not shaking hands and talking with spectators, but are busy rechecking their dogs, lines, supplies, and gear, which includes extra dog booties, food, and materials to repair the sled. As Alaska Magazine associate editor Serine Halverson writes, “Many mushers say they can’t wait to get started, can’t wait until it’s over, and after they cross the finish line in Nome, they can’t wait to get started again.” The race ends 10 to 17 days and approximately 1,150 miles later in Nome.
Most people associate the Iditarod with the 1925 diphtheria serum run, when 20 mushers joined together to transport the serum from Nenana to Nome in 129.5 hours. Afterward Leonard Seppala helped popularize sled dog racing in New England and an event was featured at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.
But the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was created in 1973 to commemorate the sled dog as the most reliable means of transport in rural Alaska where dogs have been used for centuries to haul supplies and people between communities and along traplines and hunting trails. It is due to the yearly Iditarod Trail Race that the interest in sled dogs and mushing has rebounded. Today there are race entrants from Canada, the lower 48 states, Scandinavia, and surprisingly, Jamaica.
Even if you are not that interested in the sled dog race itself, the Iditarod Trail is worth consideration. Sled dogs were used in olden times throughout Alaska to transport mail, supplies (up to 1,100 pounds!), and even people. The trail was first mapped in 1908 by a four-person Alaska Road Commission crew supported by sled dog teams. Nine months later, gold was discovered in the Iditarod mining district. Roadhouses and dog barns sprang up along the route about every 20 miles, the approximate distance that could be covered in a day, to shelter and feed the trail users. About a decade after the famous 1925 serum run, the sled dog team as a means of transport was replaced by airplanes. Together with the downturn of gold mining, most of the roadhouses closed and the Iditarod Trail itself fell into disuse.
Forest soon reclaimed the trail until Joe Redington and a host of volunteers reopened the route. The sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome was created following the historic Iditarod Trail. The race revived the sport of dog mushing in Alaska. In 1978 the Iditarod Trail was designated a National Historic Trail. It was the first of only 16 other trails designated as American National Historic Trails, which commemorate major routes of exploration, trade, communication, and even military action.
Today most of the Iditarod Trail is on public lands managed by the State of Alaska, although small portions are on private land. You can explore the historic trail by foot, auto, horse or by rail, from Seward to Knik, or in winter by snowmobile, skis, or dog sled. Many community museums exist along the trail, displaying photos, equipment and artifacts from the glory days of the dog sled team and gold rush era.
Hobo Jim and Peter Jenkins
For fun, check out the Web site for a contemporary Alaska legend, folk singer Hobo Jim, who entertains in small towns throughout Alaska. Go to www.hobojim.com, and under “listen,” select the first song, “The Iditarod Trail.”
Since our last trip to the interior of Alaska, I have read everything I can get my hands on that deals with Alaska’s history, culture, attractions and wildlife. One of the most enjoyable reads was Peter Jenkins’ “Looking for Alaska,” in which he mentions seeing Hobo Jim entertain in a small bar in Seward. You might have read Jenkins’ other best seller, “Walk Across America.”
Southeast Alaska is best seen by ship, whether it’s a cruise ship or a small exploration ship. Interior Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula have more roads, and you can tour by railroad, car or bus.
Cruise Port Travel can assist you with an Alaskan cruise, cruisetour to Denali, escorted bus tour or independent drive yourself tours. Check out our Facebook page to see many photos of Alaska. Visit us on the Web at www.travelpayson.com for specials and group sailings. We are Payson’s local certified travel agency.
Iditarod Trail Song
by Hobo Jim *
The words to the Song
Hobo Jim’s: I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail
Away up in Alaska
The state that stands alone
There’s a dog race run from Anchorage into Nome
And it’s a grueling race with a lightning pace
Where chilly winds do wail.
Beneath the northern lights, across snow and ice
It’s called the Iditarod Trail.
Well, give me a team and a good lead dog and a sled that’s built so fine,
And let me race those miles to Nome, one thousand forty-nine
Then when I get back to my home
Hey I can tell my tale
I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail.
Well the race it won’t be easy
For the masters of the trail
And some of them will make it and some of them will fail
But just to run that race takes a tough and hardy breed,
And a lot of work done by the dogs
that run across snow with whistling speed.
I just pulled out of Safety
And I’m on the trail alone
I’m doin’ fine and I’m pickin’ up time
And headin’ on in to Nome.
There’s no sled tracks in front of me
And no one’s on my tail
I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail!
* Courtesy www.Iditarod.com, the official site of the Iditarod