Call of the Wild
Apparently the word “iditarod” is Alaskan Indian for a “distant place,” but I’m not fooled. Those in the know realize it is a word that has no equivalent in English but can be summed up as a grueling, relishing challenge, whipped up and freeze-dried with masochistic lunacy. How else can you describe Alaska’s most famous endurance race, an epic journey of 1,150 miles (1,852km) over desolate tundra, dense forest, frozen rivers, and gale whipped coast? Every first Saturday in March, some 90 competitors gather in Anchorage—teams of mushers (sled drivers) with their frisky bands of yapping Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. They set off for the distant town of Nome in the north through a wilderness trail that passes through tough sounding settlements such as Rohn Roadhouse, Cripple, McGrath, and Shageluk. The mushers are equipped with axes, snowshoes, and arctic parkas. God knows they’ll need them as they endure a 2-week slog through temperatures that can reach 50°F (10°C) below zero, waist deep snow, howling blizzards and jet black darkness. This race is so tough even the dogs wear boots.
Such pain ahead is belied by the festival atmosphere in Anchorage as the race sets off. Thousands of well bundled spectators gather on the city streets to see the dog teams bound into action at 2-minute intervals. In fact, this is all very much ceremonial as the serious time clock does not get started until the teams depart from the town of Wasilla. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Anchorage is electric—the locals take this dog race very seriously. Evidence of this can be seen by the city statues to race runners from the past such as Balto the Dog. Race winners become local legends and walk away with $70,000 in prize money, plus a truck. Anyone can enter—though it’s mostly locals, people come from far and wide to participate in this legendary event. To enter you need to put down a $4,000 fee. The whole community turns out with many volunteering as stewards and marshals and rescue teams.
Such community spirit can be traced back to the origins of the race. In 1925 a diphtheria outbreak in Nome threatened to wipe out the local Inuit population. A town doctor sent back word to the state capital that he needed an urgent supply of the life-saving serum. Thus became the “Great Race of Mercy.” Eskimos, Russians, Norwegians, and Irish formed a team of 20 dog teams that ran a rescue relay north through the remote and dangerous Yukon. They got there just in time to save the day. The famous run was re-enacted in 1973 as part of Alaska’s centennial celebrations and it has been running ever since. The record for the race is 10 days and women have proved just as capable at competing with the most manly of mushers. Deaths are not unknown and doctors and veterinarians are positioned at every checkpoint to ensure the wellbeing of every competitor. As well as extreme temperatures and rugged landscape, racers must look out for that most dreaded of incidents—a collision with a moose. —CO’M
Tours: Alaska Iditarod Tours ( 1/604-720-0744; www.iditarodtours.com). Alaska Tours ( 1/866-317-3325; www.alaskatours.com).
When to Go: First Sat in Mar.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
$$$ Anchorage Marriot Downtown, 820 W. 7th Ave., Anchorage ( 1/907-279-8000; www.marriott.com). $$$ Hampton Inn Anchorage, 4301 Credit Union Dr., Anchorage ( 1/907/550-7000; www.hamptoninn.com).