History of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Alaska, 1910: Gold Rush!

Native Alaskans quickly taught American prospectors and explorers that the only reliable way to move freight through the small towns of Alaska was by dog sled. In 1908, a four-person crew from the Alaska Road Commission mapped and marked a trail from Seward to Nome, using sled dogs to travel the line.

Nine months after it was marked, the trail became the main route of commerce when two prospectors made a Christmas Day strike in the Iditarod Mining District. In the two years from 1910 to 1912, 10,000 prospectors came to Alaska in the last great Gold Rush. Approximately $30 million of gold was mined in the following years. The men would travel by boat to the Bering Sea ports of Seward and Knik, then ride dog sleds inland to the gold fields. Mail and supplies were also carried in by sled, while the fruits of the mine were carried out the same way.

When the Gold Rush died out by 1918, goods and mail were carried along more direct routes to Nome, bypassing the boom town of Iditarod. However, the trail was briefly useful again in 1925, when a deadly outbreak of diphtheria ripped through Nome. Winter had closed the port city, and there was not enough serum in town to inoculate all of Nome’s residents. Serum was shipped by train from Anchorage to Nenana, where it was transferred to a sled dog relay. The teams carried the serum 674 miles in less than 6 days.

After that, air transport became more common and soon replaced sled dog teams as the best way to travel and ship mail. When snowmobiles were introduced in Alaska, the relevance of dog sleds was quickly forgotten.

Re-opening the Trail

The trail was reclaimed by the frozen tundra until the 1970’s, when Joe Redington, Sr. worked to re-open the routes. Redington worked tirelessly to revive dog mushing in Alaska, both as a means of moving goods and as a competitive sport.

At about the same time, historian and Wasilla resident Dorothy Page was working on projects to celebrate Alaska’s Centennial in 1967. She presented her ideas to Redington, a musher from Knik. Their goal was to bring public attention to the historical significance of the Iditarod Trail. The race was also to commemorate the critical role sled dogs had in developing and settling Alaska.

The Aurora Dog Mushers Club, led by Redington, helped clear overgrowth from the first nine miles of the trail for the first version of the famous race in 1967. This shortened (27-mile) version of the race was again held in 1969.

Redington and Page set a goal of having the race continue on to the ghost town of Iditarod by 1973. However, the United States Army opened the trail as a winter exercise, allowing the mushers to utilize the whole 1,000+ mile trail, all the way into Nome, in 1973.

Redington and Page’s efforts led in 1978 to the Iditarod Trail being one of only 16 trails nationwide to be designated as a National Historic Trail. This designation, given to major routes of exploration, migration, trade, communications, and military actions, provided for management and funding from the federal Bureau of Land Management. However, local groups, community clubs, and private citizens contribute their own time each year to maintain and improve the trail.

The Race Route

The current structure of the race was developed in 1983. Teams leave downtown Anchorage and travel out to Tudor Road and along the Glenn Highway to the VFW Post in Eagle River. However, this is just the ceremonial start, and has no bearing on the actual race.

An auction is held each year to raise funds for race expenses. The auction winners get to ride on a musher’s sled for 8 – 9 miles out of Anchorage, causing many of the sleds to be less than competitive during this phase of the race.

After this first day of ceremony, the dogs are loaded onto dog trucks and transported home to prepare for the start of the real race. The next day, mushers line up at the old Wasilla Airport, about 40 miles north of Anchorage for the start of the timed race to Nome. The teams follow roads from Wasilla to Knick, a distance of about 13 miles. After that, the race goes off-road until they reach Nome.

From Knik, the trail goes through wooded valleys near the Susitna and Yentna Rivers. Next it climbs through the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass. Continuing west, the trail traverses the Kuskukwim Valley to McGrath, then to the Innoko River mining district and on to Ophir. The segment from Ophir to Kaltag alternates between a southern route through Iditarod (in odd years) and a northern route through Ruby and Galena (in even years).

From Kaltag, the route goes southwest for 90 miles along the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet, then north and west around the Seward Peninsula, then drops down onto the beaches for the last 50 miles into Nome, ending on historic Front Street, home of saloon row, where one of the establishments was once owned by Wyatt Earp!

The Dogs

Native Alaskans bred dogs for their particular needs. The Malemiut Inupiat people of the Seward Peninsula developed the Malamute, a breed well-suited to pulling sleds across the wilderness, where a team of 20 dogs might be expected to pull as much as 1,000 pounds of freight.

Malamutes are paired with Siberian Huskies, mixed breed dogs, and even wolves to create powerful racing teams. In fact, the sled dog is the most powerful draft animal in the world, on a pound-for-pound basis. A team of 20 dogs, weighing an aggregate total of 1,500 pounds can pull as much as a team of horses weighing 3,000 pounds. They are faster than horses over the long haul, able to maintain an average speed of 8 – 12 miles an hour for literally hundreds of miles. On shorter sprints, they may approach 20 miles per hour. As an added bonus, dog food can be made from animals living along the trail such as moose, caribou, and fish, while horses require hay or grain to be carried on the sled.

Roadhouses and Dog Barns

During the heyday of the original trail, roadhouses and dog barns were built along the route where mushers could spend the night for the then-exorbitant price of $2 a night. A kerosene lamp was hung outside of each roadhouse to help the mushers find their way. Each musher would file a travel plan before leaving for the day, and word was sent ahead that he should be expected by a certain time. As long as the lamp was lit, it was known that a musher was still on the trail. This lamp became known as the widow’s lamp, because if the musher didn’t show up, the lamp remained lit, signifying that the musher may have died along the trail.

Nome, the end of the line

A widow’s lamp is lit during the Iditarod race each year on the first Sunday in March at the trail’s end in Nome. The lamp hangs from the Burled Arch, the race’s official finish line. Each musher, from the first to the last, is greeted in Nome by the ringing of the city’s fire siren and a cheering crowd lining the chute.

The last musher to cross the finish line is awarded a Red Lantern, a symbol of stick-to-it-iveness. However, this is a different tradition than the widow’s lamp. The red lantern was originally given as a joke, but has become an institution in the mushing world.

The top 20 finishers are awarded cash prizes from the sponsoring agencies. However, in a symbol of the importance this race holds for Alaskans, donated funds are used to give each of the remaining finishers $1,049 so they can get both the musher and his team back home.

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